Three San Francisco stories.
The other day I took the underground Muni train from Embarcadero station near my workplace in the financial district to Civic Center station, near City Hall. I spend about 40 minutes at City Hall looking up some records at the Assessor-Recorder's office. I walk back to Muni and go to buy another ticket to ride the train back.
The only way you can pay for your Muni train ride is with coinage, even though the cost is $1.25. The smallest bill I had in my pocket was $5, so I go looking for the machines like they have at Embarcadero that give you five $1 coins for a $5 bill. The machines are usually located in front of the kiosks next to the turnstiles. The first one or two kiosks I check do not have the changer. Then I happen upon a kiosk, also without a changer, but with the turnstile coin slots covered with paper. The digital entries on the turnstiles say, 'Free entry.'
I enter the station and take a train toward Embarcadero, back to work. Just as we're pulling toward Embarcadero station, a Muni cop comes around to check everyone's payment stubs. I start to explain what happens, and then he starts in about how he has a job to do. He says there should have been signs indicating I was supposed to pay the driver of the train. (On a bus, your not allowed to so much as talk to the driver, but apparently on a train you're supposed to hassle him about broken turnstiles and make him give you a receipt.)
I protest, saying the only signs I saw were digital readouts saying 'Free entry.' "Free entry is not the same thing as free ride, sir," he says. How was I supposed to know this? I have been on the Muni trains maybe 10 times in my life. I live in Berkeley. I have never seen a sign saying the driver must be paid directly in case of broken turnstiles. I checked the Embarcadero station after receiving a citation (minimum fine: $76), and there was not one sign to that effect. I even asked a station agent about the issue, and he said station agents with broken turnstiles are supposed to put up signs telling passengers to pay the driver before they open the turnstiles for 'Free entry.' But there was no such sign at Civic Center.
Anyway, I don't think the cop believed me. As he's writing my ticket, he said, "Sir, you were on the first car, why didn't you just pay the driver?" So I tell him again how I didn't know I was supposed to pay the driver. "You're right, I was in the first car, don't you think I would have paid the driver if I knew that was what was required?" I had on my best suit and a clean haircut, my driver's license, which he was using to fill out the ticket, listed my address in Berkeley, but the cop either didn't believe me or didn't care, maybe because he had a quota to meet. (San Francisco, like most California municipalities, is struggling with a massive budget deficit.)
The worst part is, an hour or so later, I realized I *did* have a valid ticket. The first ticket I bought, to get to Civic Center, is actually called a "transfer," and it said right on the ticket is was good until 5:52 pm, and I was cited by the cop at 4:53 pm. But since I thought I needed a whole new ticket for the second leg, I thought pulling out the first ticket would be dishonest. I even mentioned to the cop I had bought a ticket to get to the Civic Center, but he never asked about it, like when I bought it, even though he knew I was new to the Muni system.
I am not optimistic about my chances for contesting the ticket. On the one hand, I could argue I had a valid ticket, at which point the judge will want to know why I didn't present the ticket to the cop. On the other hand, I could argue Muni has faulty digital signage on the turnstile, but then the judge will likely say it is my responsibility to know the law and ignorance is not a defense.
If you are from outside San Francisco, I would encourage you to simply use a car to visit the city and get around inside it. Local leftist environmentalists will tell you how important it is to use mass transit and will make the freeways sound impossibly jammed. It is true the freeways are somewhat crowded, but unless you have $100 to blow on a citation, are prepared to deal with rude and unhelpful attendants, carry as much change as a bank and are prepared to waste hours navigating the mass transit grid, it is best to drive.
There are something like five different transit agencies serving the city (Muni, BART, CalTrain, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, AC Transit) and they use at least five different transport mechanisms (regional train, regional subway, local subway, regular bus, electric bus, trolley). Each has its own rules for payment, its own rules for interacting with drivers, its payment quirks. Each is also changing the rules constantly. (CalTrain, for example, used to let you pay on the train but now will fine you for doing that. BART used to let you park overnight but will now fine you for that. Muni bus drivers cannot be disturbed but Muni train drivers must be disturbed under certain circumstances. BART riders pay at termination while Muni riders pay at outset.) It is simply too much work to navigate these systems, especially when you are penalized severely for getting one of the rules wrong.
Sometime around last Thursday I misplaced my Bank of America ATM check card. I realized this on Friday night. I had used the card at work Thursday to pay $476 in City of Berkeley parking tickets over the phone, so I assumed it was sitting at my desk waiting for me. When I got to work Monday, it was nowhere to be found. When I got home Monday night, it was nowhere to be found. Finally, on Wednesday, I went into BofA to get a new card.
They were very nice and friendly at the bank. The BofA in the financial district, unlike the one near the Berkeley campus, deals with lots of wealthy lawyers and business owners, so they seem to invest in excellent branch customer service. They actually took me to one of those desks they use for loan customers. I felt very special.
"OK, sir, we should probably cancel your check card, what was your last transaction?," the bank guy, not much older than me, asked as he pulled up my account on the computer. Before I could answer, he said, "Oh! It looks like we found your card!" "Great!" I say. "Where do you work?" he asks. "At 275 Battery, not far from here." "Well, we have a bank right there," he says, even though the branch I was presently sitting in was itself only three blocks away. "They found it," he said.
"Oh yes," I reply, "now that I think about it I withdrew some cash from the ATM there before I went to lunch on Thursday, and that was the last time I saw the card. I must have left it in the ATM machine!"
I felt very happy. It was like a mystery had been solved. How often do you lose something in a public place and it is not only found, but logged in a computer? "So," I ask, smiling, "When did they find the card?" "Oh, about a week ago, probably the same day you lost it."
BofA finds my ATM card. They are the bank that issued the ATM card to me. They log in the computer under my name that it is found. At no point in the course of a week do they call to tell me this. (Nor did they tell me on Monday, when I go to the bank to withdraw some cash, and when they ask for my ATM card I tell them I seem to have lost it and ask how long it takes to replace if I decide to give up.)
"OK, interesting, a week ago, hmm," I say. "Well. Can I have the card now, then?" "Oh, no, it has long since been shredded." To recap: BofA finds my BofA ATM card. Does not call me. Proceeds to shred my/their ATM card after a few days.
"Oh. Right. So ... how long to get a new one?" I ask. "A week to a week and a half, although we can rush it for an extra charge," he replies. "Well," I say, "At least we don't have to cancel it!" "Yes! Have a nice day, sir!"
It's easy to let little things like completely unjustified $76 fines and banks that shred personal possessions of customers get you down. I was feeling a little glum and sorry for myself Wednesday when I took the BART train home (I study BART regulations so it is relatively safe for me to ride).
I opened up the Wall Street Journal editorial page as I rode the rails. I love it when our country gets the chance to rebuild another country. Nation building is passe, perhaps because in the 1970s and 1980s we tinkered heavily with some countries in Latin America and the Middle East that turned into brutal repressive dictatorships where the poor continued to live in ignorant squalor. But if you disqualify CIA-engineered coups, puppet regimes and financially-propped-up governments, and look only at places we've out and out conquered, like Germany and Japan, our rebuilding record is pretty good.
I was busy dreaming about a liberal capitalist democracy in Iraq, and wondering what their pop culture will look like in two decades, when a woman in a wheelchair rolled onto the train -- this was in downtown Oakland, on the way to Berkeley from San Francisco -- and began the most novel and depressing panhandling harangue I have ever heard, and I live in the Bay Area.
Unlike most panhandlers, she didn't got person to person. She positioned her chair so she was facing most of the passengers, got everyone's attention in a fairly loud if humble voice, and proceeded to explain that she had multiple sclerosis and needed to raise $20 for a copayment for one of her regular treatments. She gave her full name and offered to give out her address. She sounded sweet and desperate. She gave some more information about her disorder and asked if the car could collectively come up with the $20 for her, of which she had the first $3 or so. She told us she was begging, and she told us she was desperate.
There was a long and painful silence. Most panhandlers have a way to "close" their sale in cases like this, usually by walking down the aisle and asking people individually to pitch in. This panhandler didn't do anything like that, she was sort of just waiting for someone to get up and offer some money, and no one did. A couple of guys, I think like me they were in suits, got up off the train to leave, to get away from the woman, I'm sure. They seemed a little mad, and I can understand why. Panhandlers often make up stories, in fact during my nine years in Berkeley I came to discover a small handful of con artists, like the guy who showed up every year or two and would ask students for money for his broken down car so he could get a tow, and who was actually mad at me when I told him he had given me the same story on two other occaisions.
Also, Bay Area liberals pay enough taxes and have voted for enough special taxes to know there are some pretty good social programs out there to help people genuine medical problems, from state Medicaid to local clinics, just as there is lots of free food for people who are hungry.
But I think a lot of us on the train weren't sure the woman was anything other than what she claimed to be: a desperate multiple sclerosis patient in need of a few dollar bills. Maybe she fell through a crack in the indigent medical care system. Maybe she wasn't quite poor enough to qualify for aid. Maybe she was trying an experimental treatment or a pain relief regimen not covered by Medicaid.
After what felt like a full minute of silence, when no one offered the woman a penny, she said a very humble, polite, quiet "thank you" at the next stop and rolled off the train. I didn't look up from my paper for a while, and when I did I spotted across the crowded car another guy in a suit, looking as bewildered and sad and shocked as I felt, staring at nothing and thinking about everything. The only thing I knew for sure was I was ashamed, ashamed to live in a community where, for whatever reason, a woman felt compelled to get on a train and beg for compassion.