I jumped my first SEPTA turnstile Thursday. It happened during my farewell tour in honor of the token and the paper transfer, two trusted transit buddies that are getting the ax in the days ahead.
It wasn't pretty as I vaulted over the steel gate blocking me from the Market-Frankford El platform in Center City before evening rush hour. I was wearing a dress, hadn't been to the gym in weeks, etc. But a SEPTA worker had given me permission after a dozen other riders had already taken matters into their own hands.
We were stranded for the very reason I was hanging around on SEPTA all day: The agency was preparing to vanquish paper transfers Aug. 1 in favor of all-digital swipe Key cards. The transfers are heading to the morgue along with tokens. I was using mine for one last, nostalgic time — only, none of us could use them because a human cashier had taken a potty break.
Philly poetry, pure as the perfume of a sweltering subway tunnel.
For months, I'd harbored the stash of tokens in my wallet. I'd bought them irrationally after SEPTA announced in April that it would no longer sell them. I'd run like a slobbering puppy to the same cashier booth where I'd bought tokens as a kid, when they made their 1982 debut to the general public.
"Ten-pack," I'd said. An unsentimental cashier tossed the small plastic pouch of coins my way. All was well with the world.
Thursday, though, the time had come for one last fling.
With my tokens, iPhone, reporter's notebook, and enough dollar bills to swap for transfers to connecting lines, I hopped the Route 100 Norristown High Speed Line to Upper Darby, the 101 trolley to Media, and the El into Philly's historic district. I was on a quest to answer one question:
Am I the only one out here feeling a little verklempt?
My token clangs as it drops into the same fare machine that electronically ingests my uncreased dollar bill. I'm on a hybrid train-light-rail line that I like to call SEPTA's choo-choo trolley (the Norristown High Speed Line). The operator rips a transfer off a stack affixed to clip. This will get me onto a connecting suburban trolley for a discount.
I tell the cheery driver about my purpose. I'm sad, I say, that transfers and tokens are going bye-bye.
She smiles in a way that seems both baffled and disturbed. She sends the choo-choo into forward thrust toward Upper Darby.
"Are you excited?" I ask.
"I'm very excited," she chirps. Transfers and tokens, she declares, "are a pain."
I slink away and take a seat.
On my way to the Media-bound trolley, a Key card ambassador tells me that someone, just a few days ago, unloaded 10 packets of 10-packs into a Key card machine at the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby, that massive gateway into and out of Philly. Each one transferred as a ride credit onto the new card. (The reckoning is near!)
I watch people flick transfers into cashier Raymond Wingate's Plexiglas portal, as they rush toward the El. I tell Ray, through the glass, "I'm working on a column about the death of the transfer."
"Death of the transfer?" says the 61-year-old SEPTA veteran with 37 years under his belt and comedic edge. "We're just 'putting it to rest.'"
Librarian Darin Harbaugh pushes through a turnstile and tells me he doesn't want to make the switch. He loves transfers, he says, and then vanishes toward the El.
Darin, I decide, is a portrait of denial.
Antoine Hughes is all business. You would be, too, if you commuted all the way from Northeast Philly — the length of the Market-Frankford El — to the terminus of a Delaware County trolley line for a job in residential cleaning.
He's 45, which means he and I compare notes. We reminisce about how the quarter-sized coins, which hit the scene in the 1960s only for certain school students, made their debut for the rest of us in '82. That was back when he was almost 10 and I was barely in puberty myself. As we chat, the trolley barrels past my alma mater, Beverly Hills Middle School, the first place I ever used a token to get to. I don't tell him how my dad had a deli near the El, and that tokens got me to summer jobs in the city on oven-hot trains for a $100-a-week paycheck.
Antoine, though, is no kindred spirit. He adores the Key card.
"Just swipe and go," he says. "Keys in my pockets, tokens in my pocket, wallet in my pocket; [it used to be] just too much."
The pocketbook over my shoulder is full of Band-Aids for my kids, wet wipes for my kids, snacks, tissues, and (formerly diapers) for my kids — the list goes on and on. I've literally got the room to be sentimental about these metal chips.
On the ride back, I see Jone McGrath cradling her 1-year-old grandson, Ronan, with Clara, 4, and Seamus, 6, on the trolley. The grandmom from Morton has a $10 bill stuffed into one of her fists. It's how she paid for the summer joyride, a way to get the kids away from the digital world.
"I have a girlfriend, it's all she does, always on the computer, buying gifts for her grands," Jone says. She waves her hand across the kids and says: "This is what I do: Give them time. Talk to people. Nobody talks to people anymore."
I'm on the El tracks high over West Philly. This always reminds me of going to my high school job at Fifth and Walnut Streets. Always makes me wonder how so many years have come and gone. We all motor on, whether discovering the new, discarding the old, or pretending that all is as it ever was.
Naeem Jones, across from me, pulls his earbuds out just long enough to humor me about the Key card transition.
"I got so much going on in my life," he says, "that this is just like a little coconut."
He pulls out a magnetic-strip TransPass. I ask how he got one, since SEPTA has stopped selling them in most places.
"You just gotta know where to get 'em from," he says, throwing back a smile.
Before the doors open to his stop on 52nd and Market, the 23-year-old sage offers a few final words about change.