What was I thinking, trying to buy some SEPTA tokens from the man in the glass booth at the Race-Vine subway station?
I was in a hurry; we were late for a Phillies game. I don't know how else to explain my brain freeze.
"How much for a bag of tokens?" I asked.
"I don't sell tokens," he said. He was a big man in a small space. Pleasant enough.
He explained that although that station didn't have a machine that dispensed the $1.45 tokens, he could wave me through the turnstile for $2.
I can't believe I was stupid enough to hand him a five.
"I don't make change," he said.
For 21 years I've been trying to learn the Soviet-style secrets of the SEPTA system. I'm still clueless.
What is the point of the way SEPTA manages its subway tokens, unless the goal is to gouge infrequent users and baffle tourists?
The subways of Prague have been easier for me to navigate.
With a weary finger, the man in the glass booth pointed to a change dispenser on the wall. "This must be very frustrating for you," I said to him softly.
He looked at me for a second, then said, "I wish there was someone else here who could help you.
"There should be."
My wife thought he was truly empathetic. I wondered whether what he really meant was: "I wish you would bother someone else."
Then again, I was getting an attitude, wondering why we put up with this sort of Philadelphia fleecing. The system has worked this way for longer than anyone I talked to at SEPTA or its main union remembers, which of course doesn't make it any more reasonable.
How much would it take to give these poor workers a stack of tokens to dispense, or at least to install token machines at each station? SEPTA says it has cashier windows in 88 stations, but in only 34 stations can one buy tokens.
So today, National Dump the Pump Day, when SEPTA celebrates the green goodness of mass transit, I ask the innocent question: Why can't you buy tokens at token windows?
"I'm so glad you asked this question," SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said. "I've only been here seven months, and I don't know the answer."
The next time I talked with her, she was ready for me. "The bottom line," she said, "is that it helps us save on operating costs." At the end of the night, she explained, when SEPTA workers collect money at the stations, they don't have to spend extra time replenishing the supply of tokens.
Change gonna come
I posed the same question to Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234. "It doesn't benefit SEPTA to make it simpler," he said. At some stations, like Susquehanna-Dauphin, SEPTA won't let cashiers even handle cash, he said. Safety concerns.
This token oddity will disappear in a few years, when SEPTA moves to "smart cards." Until then, the system will just annoy those, like me, who forget that SEPTA operates by its own rules.
I ran into the same problem getting to a game a year ago. Back then I had failed to word my question correctly, and didn't learn I could be on my way for $2. The man in the booth sent me upstairs to a news vendor - one of the 400 places where tokens are for sale. But it was after work, and the vendor was closed. So I hailed a cop.
"Where can I buy some tokens?" I asked.
"You could buy crack sooner than you could buy a token," he said.
Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Railroad Passengers told me about a joke his organization used to make back when SEPTA's motto was "Serious about change."
"They're absolutely serious about making you pay exact change," he said, "instead of making it easier for you to be a customer."