Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My Rude Awakening

When I was in high school, I had a rebbe (actually had a few who did this) who would fine the students when they came late to shachris davening (the morning prayer services). 10 minutes late was a 50 cent charge, 20 minutes or more, $1. I suppose that for many students it was an effective deterrent, but many others felt it was a small price to pay to be able to spend a few more minutes under the precious warmth of the blankets, and they willingly ponied up the cash each morning they had overslept. In any case, at that age, we all got our allowances from our parents, so any k'nas (as the fine was called) really was affecting our dear patrons more than ourselves.

That took place in the closed and controlled universe of the yeshiva, where the rabbeim are the supreme rulers who can make up the rules and penalties of their world as they see fit, but I imagine that if our religious authorities would be able to impose penalties on any and all halachic infractions or violations of their religious standards, they would be more than happy to do so. Skipped bentching? $5 fine! Skirt's not long enough? $50! Caught eyeing that cutie from down the block? $100! Eating at an establishment without the proper kashrut certification? $100! Not wearing your hat and jacket when we say you should? $20! (I actually got reprimanded in high school for this - someone had spotted me walking down the street without my H&J, and reported it to my rabbi.)

The truth is that in many religious people's minds, such a system is actually already in place. Many people believe that in addition to the day-to-day affairs of maintaining the universe, one of God's lesser known duties is that of divine scorekeeper. He is closely monitoring every detail of our lives, irrespective of how mundane any detail may seem (which hand did I hold the washing cup in?), and dutifully recording our numerous transgressions, which when we arrive at the pearly gates for our final reckoning, he will hold us accountable for. For those who subscribe to such a view, enforcing a penalty for any breaches of halachic protocol, however minor, is merely an expression of the Divine will, and an entirely appropriate one at that.

Needless to say, I'm quite relieved that I don't live in such a society. In the world I live in, there are rules that must be followed, but these laws are usually of a different sort, and punishments for misconduct are usually only applied when the infraction is of a certain severity. Or so I thought. Last night I was introduced to what life is like when authorities have the power to penalize people for minor and trivial things, far beyond the significance of the offense.

It was late, around 1:30 AM. I was on my way home, taking the subway back from the city. As it usually is at that hour, the subway car was mostly empty, so I grabbed the corner seat, bundled myself up in my coat, and closed my eyes to try to catch a few zzz's. Somewhere along the ride, after I find myself repeatedly tipping over into the adjoining seat, I turn myself sideways, and lift my feet up onto the seat to try to get more comfortable. I'm squished into two seats like a contortionist, but it works. I doze off again.

All of a sudden, I hear a voice nearby. "Sir, can you please come with me?"

Huh? I open my eyes, and see a policeman standing over me. He repeats his demand. "Sir, can you please step out of the train car?"

What the hell is going on? I figure there's some security issue or something going on, so I get up, try to shake off the drowsiness, and step off the train.

"What's the matter, Officer?", I inquire.

"Sir, your feet were up on the bench. You were taking up two seats. That's a violation of subway regulations."

I look at him in amazement. This has got to be some sort of joke. "You're kidding, right? The car is three quarters empty. There's tons of empty seats! I wasn't preventing anyone from sitting down!"

"Sir, that doesn't matter," he insists gravely. "Now, have you ever been arrested?"

Arrested?! Is this guy serious? After assuring him of my pristine record, he asks for identification. I fish out my wallet and give him my drivers license. He hands me a subway flyer with a bunch of rules and regulations and asks me to sit down and read it while he contacts the station to check my ID and record.

While waiting for the station manager to report back to him, he (and another officer who pulled out somebody else) ask us a bunch of questions: Where do you live? Where are you coming from? How do you spell your name? My fellow offender and I look at each other in stunned bewilderment, amazed this is actually happening. Are they actually interrogating us as if we were suspected criminals because we had our feet on a bench?! It was just too outrageous!

Finally, the report comes back from the police station that everything checks out. Then he turns to me, and says in all seriousness, "Ok, now I'm going to have to write you out a ticket. "

Ok, now this joke has gone just a little too far, don't you think? I get that you want people to not dirty up the seats or cause any disruption of any sort, or whatever reason you may have for having such a rule. Ok, I can understand that. So you inconvenience me a bit, intimidate me a bit more, make me regret that I did such a terrible thing, and now I promise never to do it again.

But you're actually going to give me a ticket?!!!

I was just stunned. This whole experience was just surreal. He finishes writing it up, hands me the ticket for $50 and explains that I need to call a number on the back and I'll get details for how to pay it. He then wishes me a good night and goes along his merry way.

It was all just so preposterous I wasn't sure it had actually happened. But it did. I was holding a ticket in my hand proving it.

The entire ordeal was not all that unpleasant. The officers were courteous, although a bit too serious about the whole thing, but even still it was a very awful feeling that I had throughout it all. I felt like I was being treated like a criminal. What did I do to deserve that? I suppose I should be thankful they didn't frisk me and ask to search my bag. It would be one thing to just slap me with a fine, but to make us undergo that questioning was an entirely different experience. Because it was 1:30 AM, the area was deserted, but if it had occurred during normal hours, it would have been most humiliating. I really don't see the justification for such an approach. It did occur to me that this must be what many Arabs feel like in Israel when they are stopped randomly on the street for no other reason than the fact that they appear Arab, and are then forced to undergo an impromptu interrogation from the police. (Not that I think the two situations are the same. But the feeling of resentment it engenders is probably not at all dissimilar.) More significantly, it made me realize how bad my life could really be if the authorities were able to penalize me for every little thing in my life that I've ever been told not to do (or to do). Wouldn't those rabbis be thrilled? I'm sure my mother would've loved it if back in the day she had had a way to enforce my bed being made, the dishes being washed, not letting my shoes be left in the living room, and being home by 11!

I sincerely hope this incident wasn't a sign of the new world order. If it is, we're all in big trouble. (Then again, that's what I was told in yeshiva would happen one day. Such a future is exactly what the world will be like when moshiach comes. I can't wait!)


After researching it a bit online, I came up with some related articles on the issue, listed below for your perusal.

Mayor Turns New York Into the Forbidden Apple
(don't miss the story about the Israeli tourist)

Nickel-and-dimed on the IRT

Transit Authority eyes subway car-hopping fine

Gothamist: Subway House Rules

Official Transit Authority Rules Of Conduct

I'd thought I'd share with you what the ticket looks like. Below is a JPEG of my ticket, so you can see the details of my offense (click it for an enlarged version). Any lawyers want to take up my case and dispute the ticket for me?

Update: I went down to the Transit Court, disputed it, and got the ticket dismissed! See the dismissal here.