This afternoon I was given a few words of advice from one of New York's Finest.
I've been living in New York for nearly two months now, and I know my way around the subway lines I use the most, even down to getting in the carriage which will mean I can step off the train and straight through an exit turnstile at my desired stop...for a couple of stops, anyway. You can learn all you like, but nobody is perfect. You have to remember what you're doing at all times on the NY subway. On stations which run more than one line (i.e.: most of them) it is never a case of just catching the next train without checking which line it is. This afternoon on the way back to Queens I took an R when I should have taken an N, and I realised this when the train pulled up to the strip-lit platform of Queens Plaza instead of the muted daylight of the above-ground Queensboro Plaza. I looked up from my book and for the first time I noticed the giant digital 'R' on the side of the carriage, sighed, and got off. Queensboro Plaza was nearby, so I decided to walk rather than catch the subway back under the river and back out on the 'N'.
Stick with me. I'll get to the interesting bit.
At Queensboro Plaza, I climbed the stairs to catch my train. Now. The entrances to the subway in New York usually consist of a row of turnstiles and a large cast-iron service door. The deal is that you step smartly up to the turnstile, swipe your Metrocard and push through the turnstile, taking care not to clog up the line by bending over to do up a shoelace or similar. The service door is controlled by an electromagnetic lock under the power of the station superintendent...or whatever you call the person selling tickets in the booth. When the door is open, it's not uncommon for everyone to use it, because it's quicker and easier, and this is what was happening when I came to the entrance this afternoon.
The guy in front of me, uncharacteristically for a stranger, held open the door - so I stepped through. At some moments in life two things happen at once and you instantly and instinctively understand the way things are going to go from here on in. At the precise instant that I stepped through the door, I noticed the cop past the stairs, deep in conversation with an MTA employee. Even worse, he had noticed me noticing him. He pointed at me and beckoned me over, as more people poured through the door behind me and hightailed it up the steps. He made his excuses to the guy he was talking to.
"Sorry man, I'll catch you later. I'm going to give this joker a ticket."
Remember that axiom - an innocent man has nothing to fear from the police? Yeah, well, I have an in-built thing about as long as everyone understands, there's no problem. I have an unlimited-ride month-long Metrocard. I could swipe through a thousand times if I wanted to. So I started to explain.
"Sorry! I'll go out and come back through swiping if you like."
"So you thought you'd cheat the city out of money, huh? With New York the way it is?"
"I have an unlimited ride card. It's valid."
This is something I encounter quite a lot. For two people to understand each other in French, for example, both the speaker and listener have to understand French, but more importantly, they need to realise that they need to use French to communicate. Otherwise the first could reel off "Pourquoi est le singe sur le branch?" and the other, caught unawares, could only respond with, "Excuse me? OH French, right. Uh, Je ne sais pas pourqoui. Il est un scamp, non?" and then they're back on an even keel. The same, whether you think it or not, applies with accents. Neighbours was the top Aussie soap in the UK when I had to ask an Australian customer what the hell he was talking about when I used to work in a Newsagent. As soon as I realised he was Australian, I started listening in Australian, and we were away again. This happens a lot to me in New York.
"It's no good offering to go round now. You're robbing the city. What are you, on vacation?" Good cop. Nice cop...
"No, I've just moved here. To get married." I proffer my left hand as evidence.
"But, how? Wha? Je? Mu?"
"I've got an unlimited card."
"You've got an unlimited card. Right. I want to see some ID."
At this point another bundle of people stride through the service door. I turn, vaguely, to see them walk up the stairs unassailed. The piercingly blue-eyed cop I'm talking to follows my gaze and drops the hand he has held out for my ID.
"Look, you couldn't have done that in London, right? If you'd come through without swiping a Bobby would have hit you on the head."
I let this go. I'd stopped trying to explain. It was slowly dawning on me that he wanted to tell me off a little.
"Tell me. What did you think you were doing?"
"Well, the door was open. I thought since it was open and I had an unlimited ride card, it wasn't doing any harm."
"You didn't think it would do any harm."
Another bunch of people rolled through the door behind me. The cop extended a finger to a skinny black guy in a beanie hat who was already halfway up the stairs.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
The guy on the stairs points at the door.
"She let you through?" said the cop. "Okay, go." He turned back to me and his mouth slid to one side of his face.
"Look," he said, "you can't suddenly offer to go round again - you've already admitted that you've done something wrong. Don't ever do that."
It hit me that this was, in fact, advice. I nodded, pitching for a facial expression somewhere between imbecility and remorse.
"You know you're lucky you got me. There are some cops who would use you to fund overtime, or line their pockets...or or to buy a new fridge. It's a $60 fine, you know."
Performance related pay? Thinks I. Interesting...and where can you buy a new fridge for $60? That's a bargain if ever I heard one...but I kept quiet.
"Look. You know now not to do it again. You're not stupid, you've got a job," again, I felt no need for correction, "so just be aware and swipe that card, okay? Or otherwise some corrupt cop could threaten to put you in jail for that shit. Got it?"
"Yes. Thank you."
"Okay. Go on."
I fled, embarrassed.
Since then I've been trying to shake both the feeling that I should be looking into a career with the NYPD, and my new and overwhelming sense of inadequacy over our fridge.