Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Very Own Free, Plastic CharlieCard

Mild Warning: Second off-topic post in a row. It must be the cold.

As much as it distresses me, I have to admit that I am unable to rant against the T for the short term. I went to Forest Hills a few days ago looking for a specific kind of trouble, knowing full well that I would find it, but the T folk foiled me.

I avoided heeling like a trained animal when they announced that new plastic CharlieCards would be available in limited places on limited days in early December. Arf. Please, Daddy, let me have this treat!

Because I still had value on a couple of CharlieTickets, I had no immediate need.

The T has pretty much screwed with me enough. There's the irregular non-schedules, outages, less service for more money, ignoring the results of public hearings, and its choice of what appears to be the very worst fare-card system in the world. So, I bike or walk, and depending on whether I can get cheap or free parking by time of day and on how many people are going, justify a short car tip downtown.

I am too wimpy to bike in wind chills below zero. Also, if I can't see the truck or bus drivesr, I figure they can't see me either. So, I don't bike ina slicker in pouring rain or sleet. Then, lo and woe, I was down to a single CharlieTicket with $5 on it, which rode in my credit-card case through the washer and then twice through the drier. I knew that those fragile decrementing papers are hydrophobic.

When I headed to Forest Hills, I ended up unable to justify self-righteousness, on this one matter at least. Foiled. I got the damned card without significant word or angst.

Of course, in keeping with its long and deep tradition of inefficiency, the T installed millions of dollars of new fare equipment, with no provision for dispensing the essential cards. Amusingly enough, in T-speak, their page on the cards cheerfully brags about their beneficence -- On December 4, 2006, we began giving away free, plastic CharlieCards.

Okay, let's consider for a moment that this is the one thing you need personally to make their lives easier, to spend money on their fares, and to operate their new hardware and software efficiently. So, we should be grateful that they "give" us the cards? Harrumph.

My trepidation came from the line about where the cards would be available:
  • At T sales offices: Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, Harvard, North Station and South Station.
Knowing the T since the 1960s, I figured you had to pay the $2 rate to get to one of these sales offices, at an inconvenient time, for a free, plastic CharlieCard.

Well, instead, they got me, in a good way. All I had to do was ask at the large information booth they just built in the lobby of the station. There, T ambassadors were eagerly awaiting to serve me.

Not really. In typical T fashion, the booth is user hostile, surrounded with Plexiglas and with sliding clear doors and a tiny sound opening, to minimize the ability to communicate in either direction. Then, when I asked, there was a long pause during which the three idle ambassadors (T-speak for old employees not ready to retire, apparently) stared at me open mouthed. I couldn't tell if they head or understood me, but my hopes soared when I was a small stack of what appeared to be CharlieCards on the counter inside the information fort.

After close to a minute with no sound or movement or even chatter amongst them, the oldest, most bent over ambassador, resplendent in T uniform, hobbled out. I didn't see a card and he said nothing, but he headed toward the fare machines 40 feet or say away. He made it, and I figured my best shot was to follow him.

He was crooked enough that his head was right at the screen level of the fare machine. Perhaps years of speaking into those booth holes and twisting down to push tokens through the slot is like osteoporosis.

Regardless of my demented thoughts, when we were together, he pulled a CharlieCard from his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I must say I've had better instructors, but we got the job done.

He had clearly been through the training, by script. He asked how much I wanted to put on the card and even though I said $20 and had one of those bills in hand, he ran through the options on the screen. Then when I pushed the on-screen space for $20, the display read to put the money in, which I did.

Aware that these cards are proximity devices and work best when brought near but not touching the sensors, I was curious about his next instructions. Sure enough, my ambassador continued by script telling me to "tap the card."

Instead, while he repeated that phrase several times, I brought the card to about 2 inches from the black lighted circle. The machine beeped and I was set.

Mildly goofing on my ambassador, I asked whether the right way to use the card was to bring it near the black circles on the fare machines and the readers into the trains. He'd have none of it. He agreed and disagreed -- "Yes. Tap it."

So in T-speak, "tap" has a non-dictionary definition.

Unlike the D.C. Metro and the NYC subways, we have added a true Boston layer on this process. We have the nation's oldest subway (sure looks and acts like it too), and we have made using it as convoluted as possible.

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