When I came home last night, the husband was busily typing away his response to the ticket he received for walking through the cars on the parked L train at 8th Ave. Because of my vast understanding of the law, based on my mixed success of fighting various parking tickets and bureaucracy, I lectured him about sticking to the facts and picturing the person who would be reading his diatribe (which was weighing in at three pages).
Then, I read what he wrote and immediately got mad because he stole my title as worlds best complaint letter writer. Why he can't turn his multitude of talents into a strong and steady income stream is beyond me.
Here it is. It looks long, but I promise, once you start reading you won't be able to stop.
Transit Adjudication Bureau
To whom it may concern:
On February 9 I entered an L train parked (as if for cleaning) at the 8th Ave. Station in Manhattan, and was overpowered by an intense, nauseating smell. The remaining doors to the car were closed so, rather than go back toward the person creating the odor, I passed through the end door and into the next car, whereupon I was stopped by two police officers who told me that the ban on passing between cars includes even those on trains that are not in service. I was taken to a stairwell, along with another man, and detained for about 20 minutes while they gave me a summons. I was told that some recent deaths in such situations (I must assume they actually happened in moving trains) had focused supervisory attention on the issue and they had been directed to crack down. While I have a number of objections to the way my situation was handled, I shall confine my dismissal petition to the following points:
1. I was not on the southbound C train (as it states on the summons); the episode took place at the nowhere-bound (that is, parked and out of service for cleaning) L train, a long walk and several flights of stairs away. This is significant because on the C train, the doors between cars are locked and have unequivocal, easy-to-read “no exit” stickers on the window of each door. The few stickers present on the L train are near the floor or on the wall, not the door, making them difficult to see when anyone is standing by them. The stickers on the L train do not even mention passing through or exiting, only that one is not supposed to “ride between cars.” (I could have provided proof of this, but I know that photography is illegal in the subway system, so I restrained myself.) One does not “ride” a parked train (parked, not just stopped), much as one cannot ride a bicycle chained to a rack; You aren’t required to wear a seatbelt when the car is parked.
2. The summons cites me for “unsafe riding.” Not only was I not riding (see above), the state of being between cars of a train for an instant is no more dangerous than being in one of those cars unless the train is in motion or able to be put into motion in less time than it takes to pass from one car to another. The train in question remained motionless for at least five minutes after my arrest.
3. Unlike the other five rule violations listed on the summons, unsafe riding does not endanger or victimize others or infringe on their rights. The penalties should be on completely different scales (as they are with, say, driving while intoxicated; not wearing a seatbelt in a moving automobile; and not wearing a seatbelt in a parked automobile). My transgression was deemed a $75 infraction (which would mean it is considered one of the most serious) by the officer, but someone could theoretically urinate or light up a barbecue grill on a crowded, moving subway car and pay only $25 (or nothing at all, at the discretion of the enforcement agent). This is significant because
4. There exists such a pattern of misinformation and even malice in the filling in of information on the summons that it brings into question the state of mind of the officer and his ability to administer the law impartially. In addition to the aforementioned inaccuracies and the extreme punishment for what must surely be one of the most innocuous of all possible subway violations, he states that I refused to tell him my place of employment; the truth is that he never asked me (and could have had his partner look it up when he took my driver’s license upstairs with him for about ten minutes), and instead wrote his own answer which he knew to be false and indicative of a hostile perp. I proudly serve as a legal, taxpaying employee of New York City and would never hesitate to give that information. I don’t mean to imply that the officer was unfit for duty, only that perhaps he was preoccupied or was having a bad day.
5. I have told at least fifty people my story, and so far not one person was previously aware of the regulation against walking between cars of a parked train (I repeat, not one). A law this counterintuitive should be publicized with a massive, highly visible poster-and-subway-announcement and backed up with clear notices in every subway car.
6. I have learned in the course of my many conversations on this subject that there is a deep current of distrust of law enforcement among even the most seemingly conformist of citizens, which usually starts with an incident in which that person was persecuted beyond reason for some small, often inadvertent, mistake. The feeling that trying to explain or defend one’s actions is perceived as belligerent turns to bitterness, which is then communicated to friends and children. I think of myself as rational and law-abiding by nature, but in each of my conversations on this topic, I have found myself unable to refrain from thinking that as I was being detained on the stairway I watched dozens of people come through the next two or three trains just as I had done, dozens of people who could have been given a warning, a notice, so they could tell their friends it’s illegal, while instead, two officers were completely occupied trying to change two very obviously average citizens into cynics who might then easily buy into the strange but widespread notion of an opportunist conspiracy to shore up transit finances through straphanger shakedowns.
I have recently begun to try to see the subway through the eyes of the law, as a seething nest of deviant (and “taxable”) behavior: people leaning on doors, tourists taking photographs, mothers giving illegal food or bottles of water to small children, people giving money to homeless people. And when I see a uniform I think for a split second, “oh my god, did I just commit a crime?”
If the goal of law enforcement is to create citizens who obey the law out of fear or practice deceit so they won’t get caught again, then zealous enforcement of opaque laws and technicalities might serve some end. If not, the $75 fine I have been assessed is far more appropriate to some of the countries my English students have risked everything to escape. I think not, and I would like to continue to assure them they don’t need to fear the police and that the subway system is one of the best things about New York.