I Am a Garbage Man For NJ Transit


Published in the Sunday New York Times on September 21, 1997

Bad ideas often come camouflaged as good ideas, like when New Jersey Transit decides to upgrade something. This usually involves a shiny new piece of equipment that makes commuting even more difficult. Case in point: the fare-tracking machines that ride shotgun next to N.J. Transit bus drivers, machines that are in part responsible for my ancillary career as a garbage man for New Jersey Transit.

You see, for every passenger that boards a NJ Transit bus, the fare machine spews a yellow strip of paper called a Receipt for Ride. Imagine what would happen if the Parkway Authority printed a receipt for every car that passed through its tollbooths; pine trees would be an endangered species. But merely damaging the environment with interminable scrolls of receipts does not by itself meet N.J. Transit’s exacting standards for an upgrade.

That’s why N.J. Transit came up with the idea of forcing passengers to double as garbage collectors. An alternative approach—asking passengers politely if they’d like a receipt—was rejected by the company’s marketing department because (1) it’s rational, and (2) it’s customer-centric.

Instead, any passenger who attempts to outflank the driver by showing a monthly pass without taking a receipt runs into a verbal “Take your ticket, please” force field. I once made the mistake of responding by showing my monthly pass again and saying: “This is my ticket. That jaundiced strip hanging out of your machine is a receipt, which I really don’t need or want.”

At that point, the whole bus went silent, some passengers transfixed by my challenge to the system. For an instant I imagined I was Ensign Pulver in the movie Mr. Roberts and the fare machine was the captain’s beloved palm tree. Pulver-like, I would rip the machine out by its roots and toss it overboard. Instead, having spoken my piece, I submissively tore off the receipt and grabbed a seat in the back.

While idly twirling the receipt in my hands, I noticed a multi-lingual mini tome on the back. It began, “Por favor no ensucie este autobus,” which roughly translates to “Please do not litter on the bus.” Proof positive that the upgrade forefathers knew at the outset where the receipts would wind up.

I had a chance to raise this issue at a recent Talk to N.J. Transit Day at the bus terminal. This is a periodic event where middle managers with the word armchair in their titles attempt to gather information on what it’s like to use public transportation without having to actually ride a bus.

The manager I spoke with told me that the reason N.J. Transit forced passengers to take receipts against their will was to prevent “zone cheating,” a reprehensible act whereby unscrupulous passengers purchase tickets for fewer zones than their actual destination. The receipt enables the driver to apprehend such scoundrels as they leave the bus, by inspecting their receipts and yelling, “Gotcha.”

“Great idea,” I told him, “except that in the thousands of trips I’ve made to and from Manhattan, I’ve never seen an alleged zone-cheater challenged by a driver.”

That’s because the receipts wind up either on the floor or in a matching yellow bag that the drivers, with uncharacteristic creativity and initiative, tape to the fare machine. The puzzled manager didn’t seem to know about the yellow bags. I explained that after you get the receipt, you immediately have the option of dropping it in the bag, thereby making it impossible for the driver to use it to nab zone cheaters. So why not, I asked, have the drivers keep the receipts to begin with? My guess is that there’s something in the drivers’ contract¾not to mention their D.N.A.¾that prevents this.)

All the manager could say (in strictest confidence) was that I could inform any driver who challenged me that I am not required to take a receipt and that I would report him if he tried to force me.

But the thought of having that conversation with a driver, who has control of the gas and brake pedals while I make my way down the aisle to my seat, has been enough to dissuade me from that course of action. Besides, playing Professor Higgins to 100 bus drivers shouldn’t be my job. I already have a job with N.J. Transit.