Taken for a ride

One man's observations of the daily drama that is Philadelphia's mass transit system

If you’re a routine rider on SEPTA’s subway or bus lines, you’ve probably seen the following antics. But do you consider it a nuisance or part of the rider experience? | Image: Kerith Gabriel

One of my pet peeves are the people on the subways and buses insulting my intelligence.

It’s bad enough if they’re clearly high, an idiot, lying, etc., but when they include my abstract ass into their bizarre world of stupidity, it never ceases to amaze me. 

But sometimes they are purely entertaining to the point of laughter.

One gentleman recently, who seemed to be close to, if not drunk, started singing. The lyrics were his, did not rhyme and he wasn’t a singer. This didn’t stop him. 

In his lyrics he said: “I’m her’ to make your day, don’t cry for me. Just help me get something to eat so I can continue to make you smile. I jus’ wanna see you smile.” 

The ironic part is that everybody liked him, he was a likable guy. He must have gotten $10 from that subway car alone. 

Frankly, I think some of these people may be brilliant because more so than not, even if it’s only due to annoyance, riders give them money and food. And there is no greater stage, forum and platform for these characters than SEPTA buses and trains. There are some routes that are clearly the territory of the boldest, funkiest, loudest, profane and insane people in Philadelphia. 

As for the buses and trains, SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line (the El) along with the No. 16 and No. 4 buses, which comprise the Broad Street Line, have no rivals. It seems that this is the performance circuit. 

Act one is what I call the Fare Technique. 

This is performed by the ones who have no SEPTA card or money, but get on as if they do. They make sure they get on either first or last. If they get on first, they move out of the way hoping that in the middle of everyone using their passes, they can ease back into a seat and the driver will just keep on going and ignore them. 

The other day, a woman got on who the driver knew, and he’d had enough. He stopped the bus as this woman tried to chat me up. I didn’t respond. The driver came out of his seat, confronted the woman and said, “You do this shit every day, either get the hell off my bus or I’m calling the police … we ain’t movin’ ’till you get off this damn bus, woman!” 

“Frankly, I think some of these people may be brilliant because more so than not, even if it’s only due to annoyance, riders give them money and food.”

This woman turned in her seat, leaned over, looked at me, pointed her thumb at the driver and said, “is all that necessary ” as she crossed her legs, smiled her three-toothed smile and winked at me. I said, “Don’t you realize you’re holding everybody up?” She said, “No I’m not! The bus driver is, I’m jus’ tryin’ ta ride, man.” When the police arrived, she was escorted off the bus and smacked her butt as she told the driver to kiss it. 

All class, this one. 

Act two is something I refer to as “the fruitless search technique.” 

With the most sincere look on his face and periodically holding up one finger to the driver this hopeful rider dug into and searched every pocket and bag he had, knowing all along he’d find nothing. I laughed because he kept looking up to see how far we’d gone. After a number of blocks, he gathered his things, thanked the bus driver and got off happily. 

Mission accomplished.

Farther down the road, another raggedy, obviously high guy kept letting everyone go on before him with grand gestures of courtesy, calling everyone madam and sir. When it was his turn, he inched close to the driver and with one finger raised as if he was about to divulge and share the secret of life itself. He started with: “Sir … and that was all he got out as the bus driver opened the doors and with his one finger raised, along with a smile said, “Get off!” 

Accepting defeat, the man bowed and said, “As you wish, kind sir.” The entire group of people in the front broke into laughter, even the bus driver, who, I might add, told the guy to get back on as he shook his head laughing and continued driving. This guy sat down with dignity, crossed his legs and held his head held high.

If these guys knew half of the scams that typically go on during a routine day riding SEPTA, they’d never be able to sit down. | Image: Kerith Gabriel

And now, I have saved the best for last. 

I will never understand people who are incredibly loud on their phones as if they are sitting on their recliner at home. It wouldn’t be so bad if these conversations weren’t so annoying or a topic that could clearly wait.  

One of the latest prizewinners was a man who looked to be in his 60s, had obviously just done a bit of shopping, evidenced by the bags on the seat next to him. He called an obviously tolerant friend or someone just like him, and then proceeded with the most annoying, detailed, repetitive and irritating conversation I ever heard. 

It went like this: ” Yeah, man, I made me a cake, with da’ icin’ and everything. My sister gon’ try ta tell me how ta cut it. She said I should cut it into four pieces and give her one. Hell, I told her I’d cut it into six pieces and think about it, know what I mean?”

He continued. After cleaning it up a bit to translate his words to the written word, it sounded something like this:

“Anyway, I just came from the vegetable and fruit sto’ and and I got me some tomatoes, some taters, some onions, some cucumbers and sum ‘talian (Italian) dressin’. I had me a chicken already seasoned up, and I put dat in the oven and then made my salad. Maaaannn, soon as I was done, my brother knocked on da door. I think he smelled it all the way from his house. First thing he said is, ‘It sure smells good in here.’ I said, ‘Yeah, and it gon’ smell good when you leave man, whatcha’ want?’ I gave him some anyway. He my brother, ya know? Hey man, this my stop comin’ up, gotta go. I call ya’ when I get home.”

Some people were laughing and shaking their heads and some were just as annoyed as I was. This man had talked as if his friend were sitting across from him and totally was oblivious to everything around him.

These are just a few of the things that have happened on our public transportation system. Rest assured, there will be more.

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