The Miseries of Mass Transit

Today’s to-do list required a trip to Temple University, which required braving the underbelly of the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority.  Otherwise known as SEPTA, or f*cking SEPTA to the majority of the population, SEPTA is the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s civic disasters (proposed casino’s along the riverfront are up there as well, right beside closing public libraries to balance the city’s budget).

It’s not just the smell, although the Federal and Ellsworth station was sporting a particularly delightful blend of urine and citrus this morning, or the lack of transit options in South Philly.  It’s the sheer impossibility of navigating SEPTA that leaves me wondering how anyone gets anywhere.

You could accuse me of sub-standard subway intelligence— I was, after all, on my way to meet with the director of Temple’s Dance Department to discuss an article she invited me to write on dance and cultural studies.  This would suggest I’m something of a bookworm, which would in turn suggest that I am lacking in street smarts (and therefore prone to confusion when faced with navigating the bowels of the Broad Street Line).  But this could not be further from the truth.

I am a World Class Expert on Navigating Subways.  And I’m not talking about the sandwich shop.  I’m talking about the London Underground.  Just ask my mom.  She’ll tell you that I’m rather impatient with London tourists, especially those who actually have to stop and look at the map (amateurs!), but I think I have earned the right.  To date, I have successfully traversed the subways of Paris, Munich, New York, Montreal, Washington D.C., Copenhagen and even Warsaw.  Actually, Warsaw’s subway isn’t that impressive.  It’s only one line, and the nice people of Poland have put together a lovely, easy to read map, which clearly indicates all the stops on that one line, even those which haven’t been built yet.

Nonetheless, I’ve trekked across Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Stuttgart and vast expanses of Italy relying upon nothing but public transport, and for all my years of backpacking, studying abroad and Not Working at The Shop, I have never, ever, taken the wrong train.  Well, okay, aside from two isolated incidents, I have never, ever, taken the wrong train.

The first time the unthinkable happened, I was seventeen.  I was feeling a bit cocky (you would be too if you had just completed your first solo, two month trek through Europe).  I didn’t bother to check the map before heading back to the Charles De Gaulle airport—my instinct would lead me!  Except it lead me to the Eiffel Tower instead.

The second incident took place this past October.  I was heading home to my flat in Roehampton after teaching my weekly tap class at Kings College near London Bridge.  Except I wasn’t thinking about my tap class.  I was thinking about my new boyfriend, and as such, I missed my stop.  It took me three hours to rectify the situation.

But aside from those two little mishaps, I have an unblemished record.  You would think, therefore, that I could handle SEPTA.  Au contraire.

SEPTA has systematically eliminated everything that might contribute to it’s becoming a proper, World Class Subway.  Maps.  Visible signage.  Escalators.  And token booths that actually sell, well, tokens.  In London, you don’t need tokens.  You just need an Oyster Card, which you top up, tap in and tap out—and after a year of living in London, I knew every shop offering top-ups in a two mile radius of my flat.  Philadelphia is a different story.  As far as I know, there are only two places to buy tokens in the entire state: the grocery store near The Shop and the Superfresh on South Street.  Presumably, there are others, but it’s a lot easier to just raid my mother’s pocketbook.  And yes, since moving home, I consider my mother’s pocketbook, my father’s liquor cabinet and my brother’s old closet fair game (I am paying rent, after all).

My mom keeps a supply of tokens in her wallet to give to homeless people.  Sometimes I feel bad about stealing tokens from my mom, and subsequently from the homeless, but not bad enough to actually go to Superfresh and do something about it (like buy some of my own or at the very least enough to replenish her stash).  Until this morning, I thought the stash was something of an endless supply, like a bottomless cup or whatever the expression is.  And my mother encourages this view.

“You’re going to Temple today?” she asked this morning, “Do you need tokens?”

“I have one,” I assured her, “so that will get me there but yeah, I’ll need one to get home.”

“Here,” she replied, reaching into her purse.  But she pulled out an empty token bag— the bag which I emptied when I went bowling last month.  Standing there at the front door, I felt a bit guilty.  I felt like a guilty twelve year old to be precise, but I can’t help it.  Living at home brings out the childish regression in the best of us.

“Sorry,” I apologized, “I might possibly have taken the last one without telling you.  I’ll get some more.”

And in a civilized society, I would have been able to make good on my promise.  But this is not a civilized society, this is SEPTA.  There are no “Poems on the Underground” in Philadelphia.  And no music on the Underground either.  No “Mind the Gap” artwork or tile mosaics depicting the history of Victorian London.  No Oyster Cards, and certainly none of those handy little screens that tell you when the next train is coming.

When I lived in London, I lost no opportunity to complain about the tube—complaining about the tube is a national pastime.  It’s what separates the locals from the tourists, and fancying myself an honorary member of the former class, I regularly swore, “For God sakes, does the Piccadilly Line ever actually run?” and “Well, what a surprise.  They’re running a rail replacement service on the Circle Line.  AGAIN!”

I would have complained about the time it took me three hours to get from London Bridge to Roehampton too but I don’t think I can blame London’s mass transit system for that one.  Boyfriend?  Yes.  But TFL?  Not really.

This morning, as I descended the urine-scented steps of the Federal and Ellsworth station, only to be told they didn’t actually sell tokens at that particular token booth, I began to think that maybe London transit isn’t so bad.  Wandering along the empty platform I realized my odds of actually reaching Temple were slim.  Empty platforms are scary; empty platforms invariably yield maniacal serial killers lurking in the shadows.  And even if I wasn’t bludgeoned to death, I would probably take the wrong train because SEPTA engineers don’t believe in signs.

Reaching the Cecil B. Moore Station was a miracle in and of itself but then, when I asked the man in the token booth on the Northbound side of the platform for ten tokens, I was told that I had to walk up the steps, cross the street (in the rain), and come back down again on the other side (because only the token booth on the Southbound sold tokens).  And that was the easy part.

When I asked the man on the Southbound side, “How much for ten tokens?” he told me, “I don’t know, look at the sign.”  But this was SEPTA, and as such, there was no sign.  It was then that I decided I will never again complain about the London Underground, even if this means I’ll have to find another way to amuse myself (and prove that I’m not a tourist).  In the meantime, I bought a bag of tokens for myself and a bag for my mother—after all, there’s no point in raiding an empty purse.

3 Responses to “The Miseries of Mass Transit”

  1. Courtney

    Jim and I also survived the Metro in Paris and the Underground in London. We were, however, fined by the transport authority in Paris for apparently using an expired ticket (which the turnstyle accepted–which is the ONLY reason why we used them!) 50 euros each! A lovely way to end our time in Paris 🙂

  2. Ben

    Likewise I swore never to complain about the Tube again after trying to get from place to place by bus in Los Angeles….

  3. Your Landlord

    And Londoners think I am crazy when I praise their transit system to high heaven!!!! I try to patiently explain to them how SEPTA works (or doesn’t) but by the time I get into the specifics, I realize that I am almost foaming at the mouth just thinking about the times I have waited in the rain and freezing cold for a bus, only to have to WALK several blocks to my final destination (which is why I only take SEPTA in bad weather, it is far easier to WALK)…sigh…never mind the surliness of the staff, filth and dungeon-like quality of our “Huge” subway system…I miss the TUBE!!!!


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