April 8, 2003
A Disgusting Practice Vanishes With the Token
By RANDY KENNEDY
In five days, when the last New York City subway token slides through the slot of the last booth to sell them, few people will notice and fewer will care. There will be no official ceremony to mark the passing. If there is music in the background, it will not be taps; it will be the bleating song that turnstiles sing to valid MetroCards.
But off in a corner, hidden in the shadows where things begin to smell bad, at least a few observers will notice and care quite a lot. They belong to a sad and desperate breed of criminal that has been in decline for a long time, one that will soon become as irrelevant as bootleggers and horse thieves.
Officially, the crime is classified as theft of Transit Authority property. But among transit police officers it is more accurately and less delicately known as token sucking. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it is exactly what it sounds like.
The criminal carefully jams the token slot with a matchbook or a gum wrapper and waits for a would-be rider to plunk a token down. The token plunker bangs against the locked turnstile and walks away in frustration. Then from the shadows, the token sucker appears like a vampire, quickly sealing his lips over the token slot, inhaling powerfully and producing his prize: a $1.50 token, hard earned and obviously badly needed.
Even among officers who had seen it all, it was widely considered the most disgusting nonviolent crime ever to visit the subway.
"It gave you the willies," said Brendan J. McGarry, a veteran transit police officer. "We've had cases every so often, these guys would end up choking and swallowing the tokens. Then what do you do? You've got to wait for the evidence to come out?"
In truth, most token suckers usually had enough evidence already in their pockets to warrant locking them up — some of the most dedicated were able to extract more than $50 worth of tokens a day. And deterrence, when dealing with someone willing to clamp his mouth to one of the most public surfaces in all of New York City, was next to impossible.
"These guys were on their last legs," Officer McGarry said. "If they were going to jail, it was just an inconvenience for them." (In an interview with a reporter for The Los Angeles Times in the early 1990's, one token sucker acknowledged the depths of his desperation. "Hard times makes you do it," he explained, adding: "Anyways, I've kissed women that's worse." )
Eddie Cassar, a retired transit officer, recalled making his first token-sucker arrests in the late 1970's, and by the time he retired in 1982, there was already a dedicated corps of inhalers, mostly teenagers and homeless men, working the station at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. By 1989, with the rise of the crack trade, token sucking reached almost unbelievable proportions.
During a typical summer week, repair crews were sent on 1,779 calls to fix turnstiles in a system that had 2,897 turnstiles in all. More than 60 percent of the calls involved paper stuffed into the token slots. (A related subway crime involved people who disabled the turnstiles and charged riders cut-rate fees to enter through the gates, to which they had stolen keys. These criminals, somewhat higher on the social ladder than token suckers, were known affectionately as trolls.)
Occasionally, methods other than incarceration were employed to dissuade the suckers. Token booth clerks were known to sprinkle chili powder into the token slots most often jammed. Some officers resorted to spraying a small amount of Mace around the regular slots and keeping an eye out for the usual suspects. The ones with bright red lips were then arrested.
By the time the MetroCard was introduced in the mid-1990's, token suckers could sense the beginning of the end. But Officer McGarry said that even the introduction of advanced new turnstiles did little more than thin their ranks. By the late 1990's, he said, he was on a first-name basis with many of the sad token holdouts, who would probably never adapt to MetroCard crimes.
"It was almost like having some kind of rapport with these guys," he said. There was one tall, thin homeless man, he said, who was even pleasant about the whole process. "He'd say, `Hi, Mac,' when I caught him. And I'd say `Hi' back, and he'd just walk up to me like a poodle, and I'd tell him to turn around and put his arms behind his back."
Lately, he said, he spots only three old-time token suckers around the Midtown area and only one who is still known to be at it occasionally. But Officer McGarry can't even remember the last time he locked the man up. In the end, he said, technology may have killed the token sucker. But the crime itself did a pretty good job.
"These guys had a lot of various diseases," he said. "You name it, they had it. You don't last too long in that line of work."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company