I took the train to work for ten years. Remember all those blog posts I made about my adventures — good and bad (mostly bad) — on the train? Well, they kind of stopped in 2017, when I no longer had a job that required me to take the train on a daily basis.
I am back among the "drive yourself to work" set and I rarely have the opportunity to take the train. And then there was the worldwide pandemic that brought nearly everything to a halt. Now, as things begin to reopen, readjust and get back to some sort of "normality" (whatever that means), my wife and I ventured into center city Philadelphia to see the iconic Christmas Light Show held annually at the former John Wanamaker department store, now operating under the "Macy's" name. Instead of driving, fighting traffic, paying an exorbitant amount for a few short hours of parking, Mrs. P and I decided to take the train.
It's comforting to see that SEPTA (the acronymed organization that operates the public transportation system in southeastern Pennsylvania) has remained its same, old, dysfunctional self.
Early on Saturday morning, Mrs. Pincus and I took the familiar stroll to the Elkins Park train station, located just down the street from our house. (It's so close, we actually use it as a landmark locator when directing people to our house.) Upon our arrival on the platform, I checked the SEPTA app on my phone and was not one bit surprised when I saw that our 8:29 train was already listed as 15 minutes late. Mrs. Pincus realized she should have dressed more warmly for the unpredictable weather that Philadelphia had been experiencing. She made a quick run home to grab a hoodie. I watched, in her absence, as the SEPTA app added more time to our already-late train. SEPTA was already meeting and exceeding my expectations for getting back to "how things used to be." Mrs. P returned, bundled in her newly-retrieved hoodie, to find me in the exact same spot — with no train in sight.
Eventually, our train arrived to take us on the short, twenty-minute journey to center city Philadelphia. Now, the Elkins Park ticket office is only open for limited hours during the week and never on weekends. Passengers without a pre-purchased monthly pass (the traveling category in which we now fall) can purchase tickets on the train from one of the hopefully friendly conductors. As the train pulled away from the platform, one of the aforementioned conductors (this one uncharacteristically friendly) made his way down the center aisle. He stopped at the folks seated right in front of us. They were also headed to see the holiday light show, so our fare would be the same as theirs. After paying, the conductor presented them with two cardboard "swipe cards" that, he explained, should be used to open the electronic gates to exit the station. As he took a step in our direction, the train slowed to a stop at the Melrose Park station. He raised a finger to us and informed us that he'd be back.
He never returned.
Instead, he stood and gabbed with a group at the front of our train car — laughing and gesturing — as the train stopped at the three subsequent stations before our Jefferson Station destination. I gripped a ten dollar bill, ready to pay since we boarded. Mrs. P and I shuffled down the aisle towards the exit doors. I sidled up to our conductor and whispered: "We haven't paid our fare yet." He smiled and tipped his head in the direction of the doors. Extending his open palm, he said: "Happy holidays!" implying that our trip was gratis. Except we were now without that special swipe card that would free us from the confines of the station, once we climbed the exit stairs from the subterranean platform.
Once in the bustling station, I observed a newly-installed (well, "new" since my last trip on the train over two years ago) bank of electronic turnstiles occupying the once-unobstructed exit passage. I, along with my wife and a small group of similarly bewildered commuters, examined the steel and glass barriers that separated us from the outside world. And he we were without a way to make them open and grant our freedom. Mrs. Pincus spotted a disheveled-looking fellow, his SEPTA-emblazoned shirt untucked from his wrinkled, ill-fitting pants, puttering around an Information Booth.
"Excuse me," she began. The fellow looked up with a confused expression, as though no one had spoken to him in weeks. Mrs. P continued, "How do we get out? We were not given swipe cards by the conductor on our train." The man scratched his head and offered two options. "Well," he said, you can buy an exit card from that machine over there." He gestured to a large, refrigerator-looking vending machine with a very complicated-looking glowing blue screen. Our little group collectively cringed. We all turned back to the fellow, hoping that Option Two would be more appealing. "Or you can just push open the glass door at the ADA exit." (The ADA, of course is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that required all public area to be equipped with easy access for those folks in wheelchairs or other disabilities requiring special provisions.) Although we felt bad, we all silently acknowledged that we liked Option Two much better and would take full advantage of it. Like a mini parade, a dozen people walked single file through the easily-opened ADA exit... and no one said a word.
Our return trip home was equally as "typical SEPTA" as our morning adventure. Upon exiting the station earlier in the morning, I purchased tickets for our trip home and safely tucked them in my wallet. After a full, fun day of holiday lights, lunch with our son and his girlfriend, a stroll through the temporary Christmas shopping village set up around Philadelphia's City Hall, Mrs. Pincus and I walked back to the station to board a homebound train.
Ah, SEPTA. You appear to be adjusting to the post-pandemic world just fine. God bless you. Keep up the good work.