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Eulogy for the SEPTA token

The transit token is on its way out in Philadelphia, the last large American city to still use the little coins that were once part of the fabric of urban life.

Lailani King, 16, uses tokens because the CCP upperbound program provides them to her, but she doesn't know what they'll do after tokens have been phased out. Here King holds up a token at the Spring Garden Broad Street Line subway station Dec. 22. GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer
Lailani King, 16, uses tokens because the CCP upperbound program provides them to her, but she doesn't know what they'll do after tokens have been phased out. Here King holds up a token at the Spring Garden Broad Street Line subway station Dec. 22. GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff PhotographerRead moreGeneva Heffernan

A typewriter clacking. A droning busy signal on a landline. The crackling of a record player needle on vinyl before the music starts. Sounds omnipresent through a century of American life, largely silenced by the digital age.

Add to that list the clink of tokens in a fare box.

SEPTA announced last week that it would remove token vending machines at El and subway stops. The transit agency plans to keep selling tokens for the time being at some locations, and will continue to accept them, but is gradually taking the coins out of circulation in favor of the SEPTA Key card and QuickTrips fare tools. Philadelphia is the last big American city that still uses tokens on transit, and in a few years, when the last SEPTA token pays for its last ride, an era in transportation will end.

The token's extinction is already underway. Sales declined to 2.2 million in November, a million fewer than in the same month in 2016. Businesses along Baltimore Avenue's trolley route have cut back on stocking them or stopped selling them entirely.

"They changed the system, and there's no reason to sell them," said Scott Lee, of Lee's Deli at 47th Street and Baltimore  Avenue.

It wasn't the metallic rattle of a coin that accompanied boardings on a recent trip through West Philadelphia on the Route 34 trolley. Instead, the beep of SEPTA fare cards being swiped marked the arrival of new riders. Abhishek Kalpattu, 23, and Sudiksha Sridhar, 24, were exceptions. The two University of Pennsylvania graduate students use public transportation infrequently, and their tokens, picked up during trips to the grocery store, are convenient and don't require them to remember exact change or think about card balances.

"It'd be a great inconvenience," Kalpattu said of the tokens' demise. "I don't know if a pass would be the wisest thing for us."

Bigger than a nickel, smaller than a quarter, gleaming silver with a coppery stripe across its middle, the SEPTA token is engraved with a statement of its value: "Good for one ride." A $2 token is a 50-cent discount over paying in cash, and for occasional transit users throughout the area, tokens are a reliable presence tucked into drawers and jars, and between seat cushions.

"I have spares everywhere," said Christine Brisson of Logan Square. "I throw two in my pocket when I leave the house. I have backups in my wallet, and I have backups in my desk at work."

SEPTA first introduced tokens for students in 1968, but before the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority existed, there was the Philadelphia Transportation Co., and before that the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co., and tokens paid for rides on those, too. They have been a part of public transit in Philadelphia since at least the 1880s, said Matthew Nawn, an Upper Darby native and a vecturist, or collector of transit tokens.

"It was more economical, it was more efficient," said Nawn, who now lives in Hanover in central Pennsylvania. "Many places as late as the 1970s were not exact fare. Change was made and given. [The token] definitely sped up loading and boarding."

Tokens would likely be even closer to obsolescence if things had gone as planned for SEPTA. The transit agency ordered the creation of the smart-fare card SEPTA Key in 2011, but a string of technical problems pushed the debut of the new fare system from 2013 to last year.

SEPTA Key has been widely adopted, with 530,000 cards in circulation, though its rollout hasn't been without some bumps. SEPTA is working to redesign the kiosks and website associated with the cards, which customers have found confusing, and there has been trouble with fares not processing properly for some bus riders.

The SEPTA Key card is slick, slim, and doesn't weigh down pockets like tokens do, but it also doesn't allow a user to pay for more than one ride at a time, or have multiple cards drawing from one account. A handful of tokens lets Philadelphians buy a ride for a friend without cash, or family in town for the holidays.

Families who use public transit with children say tokens are an invaluable convenience, and social service organizations give them out to help clients get to and from the places where services are offered. Mighty Writers, an organization that provides writing instruction to Philadelphia children, has stockpiled close to 1,000 tokens for the 300 teenagers a year who need to use them to get home from evening sessions.

"Right now we have stocked up on tokens and we are working on a solution, but we are really still trying to figure that out," said Rachel Loeper, the program's education director.

SEPTA officials were prepared for these concerns, said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesman. Paper QuickTrips are taking the place of tokens as the single-ride option, he said. The company that maintains SEPTA Key, Conduent, is working to allow multiple cards on one account by late 2018. SEPTA also will offer a new disposable card that will eventually be available to social service organizations to hand out to clients. By the middle of 2018, SEPTA will allow retailers who now sell tokens to sell Key cards, Busch said.

Meanwhile, tokens persist, and have become a somewhat jokey symbol of the city.

A new mural in North Philadelphia shows a three-story tall squirrel nibbling an equally gigantic token. Three friends from John W. Hallahan Girls High School started making necklaces, earrings, and cufflinks out of tokens about two years ago, and were thrilled to learn people would pay for the offbeat bling.

"Transit tokens are really nostalgic for people, as they were to us," said Anita Mastroieni, one of the co-founders of Token of Affection. "You remember riding the bus with your girlfriends."

When it comes down to it, tokens are an anachronism for a reason. Having to fumble through a handful of change to find a token probably won't be missed, and needing to stock up for trips with multiple stops is a pain. When the kinks are worked out, SEPTA Key will likely be much preferred.

"My attachment isn't so much to the tokens themselves — they're annoying," said Justin Sherin, a New York writer who grew up in Palmyra. "But losing them shaves another edge off the city."

They're an artifact of childhood, a reminder of adolescent freedoms, a link to family traditions as ingrained as Phillies games and the Christmas light show at John Wanamaker.

They remind Nawn, 40, of traveling with his grandmother to shop along 69th Street, or visiting his dad at work on 23rd.

Tokens remind Sherin of the thrill of shows at the Electric Factory, and the sadness of visiting his father as he was treated for a terminal illness at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's Philly," said Sherin. "Stubborn, set in its ways, counterintuitive. A headache. A relic. Tokens are Philly all the way."