Vantage point

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The New York City SBS Receipt Social Contract

Living in New York is a continuous assault on the senses - in a good way. You get to see, hear, and experience so many things unique to the city, that it becomes commonplace in a while. But every few days, I have a new experience that makes me love this city even more. This is one such experience.

This semester I have been teaching in the Bronx 3 days a week. The commute is long, and involves something I have never had to resort to in Manhattan - riding the bus! I take a subway train from Manhattan to the Fordham Rd station. And from there, take a bus to the Fordham campus, about a mile away.

This is an SBS (Select Bus Service) bus. Unlike normal buses, where you pay the fare when entering from the front door, the SBS buses require you to swipe your metrocard at the bus stop, take a receipt, and keep it in your pocket. The driver assumes that everyone has a receipt. Most of the times, no one checks if you actually have the receipt. But once in a while, when you get off the bus, an MTA employee is waiting to check your receipt. If you don't have it, you pay a fine. Doesn't happen too often (I've encountered receipt checkers only 3 times in the last 3 months), but acts as a deterrent against free riders.

Obviously, you need to get the receipt from the fare machine BEFORE the bus gets there. Which is what I usually do. I get off the subway, walk to the bus stop which is a block away, swipe my card, take the receipt, and wait for the bus. That receipt is free, because transfer from an MTA subway to an MTA bus is free. So I'm not paying the city of New York another $2.25, just getting a proof of the fact that I have a right to be on the bus.

A couple of days ago, I got off the subway, and saw that the bus was already at the stop. Instinctively, I ran. I wasn't in a hurry or anything. I could just as easily have taken the next bus and been well in time for my class. But the human urge to run after the earliest bus is as irresistible as the canine urge to chase cars. So I ran.

As I ran, I started wondering if I really could catch the bus. I would have to go to the fare machine, swipe my card and get the receipt (a process than takes 10-15 seconds), and then get on the bus. New York City bus drivers, quite understandably, don't hang around waiting for tardy passengers. Time, tide, and MTA buses wait for no one. It seemed like I would probably miss the bus. I still kept running.

As I approached the bus, before I could head to the fare machine, a man getting down from the rear door thrust his hand out in my direction. In New York, if a stranger makes a strange gesture, you ignore it. So I did. Another man did the same thing, trying to hand me something. I assumed he was handing out fliers like someone at every street block in the city seems to be doing, ignored him, and kept running. Although I was in no particular hurry, I kept hoping I could get to the fare machine, get the receipt, and hop aboard before the bus left.

When I was about to run past the middle door towards the fare machine, a big black guy about 2 metres tall and almost as wide stood halfway in my path. With a swift motion of his arm, he thrust something in my hand and grunted,

"The f**k's wrong withchoo man? Get on the damn bus!"

I stopped dead in my tracks. Not like I had a choice, given that he was blocking my way. I looked at my hand. It held an SBS receipt. I looked up and saw the big lug had already started lumbering away. He looked back at me and said,

"You gonna miss the bus."

With the receipt in my hand, I hopped aboard, and stood there, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. It took several seconds for me to grasp the concept. And I finally understood that the other guys thrusting their hands at me had been trying to do the same thing - hand me their receipts.

I had been the beneficiary of a benevolent social contract that seemed to have come about among those who travel on SBS buses. When you're getting off the bus, if you see someone running to catch it, you give them your receipt. The receipt is no good to you anyway after you've gotten off. The poor running sap will have to go to the fare machine, and will probably miss the bus. So an elegant solution to help others out - give them your receipt.

The simplicity and elegance of this implicit social contract almost made me go "AWWWWWWWW". There's no way to know how this norm started or when. But it's another example of how human beings thrown together in a tough situation develop mechanisms to help each other out. Often, when it's a tough situation brought on by "the man" or the government. It's a bit like how drivers on the interstate highways, when they see a cop hiding in the bushes to catch speeders, flash their lights to oncoming drivers to warn them.

The next time I get off the SBS and see someone sprinting towards the bus, I am going to hold out my receipt for them too. That really is the essence of "pay it forward".

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