Monday, April 20, 2009

Black Traveling

Spring has sprung on Graz like Tigger on a particularly blue Eeyore. All the trees and bushes suddenly got green in less than a week. This improves the view from both my office and apartment, and makes the walk home even more pleasant. Along with blue skies and enough sun for tanning, it's quite relaxing.

Streetcar riding is not relaxing at all, but that's the point.

I arrived on 13 Feb and bought a week ticket for the streetcar for 10 euros. You are supposed to stick tickets in the ticket-stamping-and-beeping machine, which I couldn't translate into German with a dictionary and infinity monkeys. This prevents bastards like me from continuing to use the ticket after a week. My goal was 2 months, and I succeeded.

There are three other components to Graz's anti-streetcar-deadbeat-leeching-program. The first component is classic Germanspeaker obedience. Just like the natives NEVER cross the street against a red light or without a crosswalk handy, they just don't think of traveling with no ticket. The second component, and by far the most fun, is the ticket police. They had these in Bremen too, and they were much, much better.

In Bremen, I had a valid ticket the whole time. Nonetheless, it was fun to try to spot the ticket police. They are undercover, of course, and I never saw a uniformed cop on a streetcar. They attacked in packs of 4-6, so that at least one could enter each streetcar door, preventing scofflaws from simply exiting at the next stop. This also made them quite easy to spot. People trying to get the optimal spacing look as innocuous as an elk hunter with wolf scent spray and a 30 foot rifle with an air horn. They always board at one stop, pounce, then leave at the next. They could instead board a streetcar, wait in ambush for a few stops, and nail people like 3 legged zebras. They were really, really stupid and transparent. And, being Germanspeakers, they had to follow the rules at all times, meaning they were on duty and could never be doing anything that might be inappropriate while working.

They are never:
disabled or unhealthy
not of native German stock
well dressed
badly dressed
happy, angry, sad, or otherwise emotional
carrying anything. This includes holding a streetcar ticket or money (with which people invariably buy a ticket upon boarding, cause why else would you hold money at a streetcar stop?)
using a cell phone
listening to music
running to catch the streetcar
eating anything
reading a newspaper, magazine, or anything else.
engaged with anyone else, except for maybe officious discussion or devious eye contact. Anyone talking with any animation, making out, arguing, etc is not going to ask for your ticket.

As mentioned, I didn't care about them much in Bremen, because I had the ticket. As first, train(cop)spotting provided some entertainment on a boring commute, but it got so easy I stopped. The cops would board and yell "Fahrkarten, bitte!" and reach into their wallets to pull out their credentials with smug anticipation. They were twice disappointed to see that I had my wallet out before them. I was on a first name basis with four of them by the time I left. God, they were lousy.

I am still, technically, in his employ right now. This annoyed me enough that I decided to get no ticket, which elevated copdetection from a lark to a motivated endeavor. There's a 60 euro fine for riding with no ticket. Correction: for getting caught riding with no ticket.

I figured the week card would give me some hope of talking my way out of it. I would just say that I didn't realize I had to stamp it. I would do so in my best impersonation of an American with a bad accent, which requires as much acting effort as the ticket cops.

This was fun for a while. Every time I arrived at a new stop, I would look for the characteristic pattern of people entering at each door. If I saw it, I would scan for suspicious signs (people at each door exhibiting none of any of the above giveaways) and disembark immediately. Except I never did so. After a month, to my terrific disappointment, I started to think they have no ticket cops here, even though my labmates said otherwise. I let my guard down.

2 weeks ago, I was riding home after about 34 consecutive hours finishing a grant proposal that would send me to Korea if funded. I scanned a streetcar stop with a practiced eye that was open from sheer force of will. I didn't care much at the time, and figured I looked bad enough that I could talk my way out of anything. But, only one person boarded the streetcar, so I ignored her. The doors shut and the streetcar moved on. "Fahrkarten, bitte!" The fine City of Graz found a brilliant way to thwart my cop detection plan: only send one ticketcop, instead of sending them through every door. Brilliant. I had the troubling sense I was missing something, and started to sweat as the woman slowly worked her way to the back, checking tickets all the way.

I checked my week ticket. No fucking way it would pass for one week old. Its edges were frayed like my nerves. I started preparing a new speech in German, figuring out the correct declinations when possible and then botching them. But I came to accept that I was probably out 60 euros, and it wasn't such a loss; the month ticket I didn't buy cost 34 euros, so I almost broke even. She was about 20 feet away. I vaguely heard the automatic ding announcing the next stop. Wait a second. That's why the Bremeners don't board one cop at a time. I hit the button, the doors opened, and I left.

Adding further to the fun: it was my stop anyway.

I was tired and worried enough that I would have missed my stop, failed my pathetic backpedaling, paid the 60 euro fine, left the streetcar, realized my mistake, walked back (being too pissed off to buy a valid ticket at that point), then been angry and confused, then blogmocked the ticketcop, city of Graz, and the entire system, and then probably tried to claim the fine as a tax write-off.

So that was that. No harm, no foul, no fine, no proof except this blog entry, which is of course entirely hypothetical.

Except-I mentioned a third component to the Graz deterrence plan. They have signs inside the streetcars to make people like me feel guilty. They are fantastic. The refer to us as "schwartzfahrer," or "black traveler." Oooooooooh. Shows how guilty they think I should feel for violating the system. My soul is blacker than both my soles. It seems vaguely racist, too. Black people are not allowed to ride the streetcar? Now come on!!! Although, it does preempt Rosa Parks. If you make people sit in the back, then they could rebel and walk the whole way. Pretty soon, everyone wants to be treated equally. It could trigger a whole civil rights movement. They learned something from this embarrassing black mark in American history, and just cut right to outlawing black travelers altogether. And I see very few black people in Graz. Maybe they were driven away by the signs attacking Nigger Traveling. How undiplomatic. Our president is not welcome on your streetcar? But he's not all black! What if he hangs half his body out the window? If you caught him, would it be a 30 euro fine?

But the signs do not mention a penalty. American signs certainly would; moreover, the mass transit in the US does not even allow the possibility of fare evasion. We know better than to trust us. On buses, you have to confirm your ticket with the driver. On subways, you have to pay to walk through turnstiles that have metro transit police stationed between them. Austrians just have signs to make you feel guilty.

One says: Schwartzfahren loest starkes aus Schwitzen. Black traveling releases strong sweat. The sign that finally got me was: Schwartzfahren fuehrt zu verspannungen. Black traveling leads to something. What? Shame? An eloquent blogmocking? Horsewhipping? The Pillory? Sent to the Eastern Front? Scrotum opened, salted, spritzed with lime, and dipped in a bowl of underfed piranha? I enjoyed the mystery of ignorance. I knew spannung was exciting, so it seemed redundant. Of course it's exciting! That's why I do it!

I made the mistake of getting it properly translated by two former Graz residents, and "verspannungen" means "tension." Again, they play on that mentality. No need for effective ticketcops. Just remind people they are disappointing the Fatherland. That took the fun out of it. There's no valid reason why the other Graz streetcar users should pay for me. I deserve to feel guilty for taking advantage of such a quaint and innocent people, portrayed so accurately in The Sound of Music. I bought a month ticket last week.

And I will even stamp it. Eventually.

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