No Great Expectations

Are bleeding wounds, not paying subway fares, and getting stoned before breakfast now normal?

The Tuesday after Easter, preparing to exit the Washington Metro at my usual stop, I waited for the car doors to open. My eye caught something red on the edge of the door, which extended downwards, even to a blotch on the floor. I’m not a biologist, but I think I know congealed blood when I see it. As the Metro only starts running about 5 a.m., and I get off my train before 7, I assume it’ll be there a while, apparently not noticed by the overnight cleaning staff. Just another day…

I’ll admit I’ve grown wary of my stop: L’Enfant Plaza. A few weeks ago, I remember being assaulted—also at 7 a.m.—by the sour stench of marijuana wafting down from the exit overhead. When I got there, I saw four young men, all in their teens, toking weed. They hadn’t yet made their way to school or work, but were on their way to being high.

Every morning and evening, I observe young people jump the fare gates. It really shouldn’t be an issue for many of them, given that DC provides free fares for students. I guess they can’t be bothered with the card swipe. Having grown up in the New York area and convinced of the merits of Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on fare beaters (Hizzoner pressed police to arrest gate jumpers which – surprise – revealed many of them to have rap sheets!) I believe in the principle behind “broken windows” — when you let some rules, legal or social, fall by the wayside, broader blight typically follows.

It’s interesting how DC reacted to gate jumpers. The City Council responded by cutting farebeating fines to a maximum of $50 (they’re $100 in Virginia and Maryland) and making violation a civil, not a criminal offense. So the truth is that enforcement theoretically happens only at the beginnings and ends of most lines, upon exiting the District, and not on the vast majority of the lines themselves.

Metro makes a show of “enforcing” payment by mounting posters asking, “Please pay your fare before riding,” and warning that, if you don’t, “you may be fined.” Everyone who knows better knows it’s a bluff.

After all, are fares obligatory or not? If you have to pay a fare, do we ask “please?” If we are going to punish you as a scofflaw, do we say you “may” get fined?

There are older signs in the subway cars themselves that assure you that “violation is punishable by fine and/or jail” if you commit such egregious acts as eating, drinking, smoking (presumably nicotine), or littering.

If you ignore that anachronistic placard, the therapeutic voice will warn you. Arriving around 6:20 at my boarding station, I am bombarded by the nonstop female therapeutic voice. Now, the last thing somebody half groggy at 6 a.m. wants is incessant talking, especially when it’s canned and recorded. The litany usually starts with all the places there are delays or broken elevators en route (because Metro is challenged running a one-track railroad), ending with the assurance that “we apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for choosing Metro” (as if I had an alternative). That is sometimes followed by “Is this your first time using Metro?” and a catalog of vital skills, including how to use an escalator and a warning not to ride “your skateboard, scooter, or bicycle” on station platforms. Finally comes my favorite: “See it? Say it! If you see something suspicious, call Metro Police at… And, as a reminder, eating, drinking, and smoking is prohibited in Metro to include stations and escalators.” In the same breath we’re warned against the dangers of unattended packages in the nation’s capital and Egg McMuffins! To ensure you got the message, it’s repeated in Spanish. No San Antonio breakfast tacos in the Washington Metro!

One needs to step back to ask: What has happened that people think congealed blood, not paying fares, and getting stoned before breakfast is normal?

Moral relativism meet the nanny state. Because we cannot be “racist,” paying fares is now deemed unfair. (So why do I?) We’d like and really encourage you to do so, but we won’t be so excluding as really to enforce it under pain of law. We wouldn’t like to be blown up, so please report “suspicious” activity, but do also get rid of that Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. And, in case you have just woken up in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the best way to use an escalator is…

Blather about “community,” “it takes a village,” and “social justice” notwithstanding, this picture is the product of hypersensitive, atomized individualism lacking in the civilizing effects of real social interaction. The Germans have a word—Kinderstube—which means the empathetic, good-mannered upbringing expected of people. To lack Kinderstube is a put-down. Somebody with Kinderstube instinctively knows not to ride a skateboard on subway platforms without being told.

Ours is the confusion of a welter of woke policies, mutually incoherent but each with its own lobby. If I was subjected to second-hand nicotine smoke, there’d be ten attorneys-general and even more ambulance chasers ready to defend my right to clean air. But pot? Suck it up (but not too deeply)!

No, talk about “community” runs up against the contemporary mentality of the privileged “I” whom society owes but who owes that society nothing. And that’s not just an issue of upbringing or even more broadly of culture. It’s ultimately a moral question, a question of knowing the common good. It is the “social justice” about which there is so much tongue-wagging while advancing a Babel of social policies that cumulatively undermine the “justice” they ostensibly serve.

Metro is a microcosm of what ails America in lots of spheres: education, the workplace, even churches. It generally works, so we overlook accumulating indices of dysfunction, pretending they’re not there even as they multiply, their advocates hoping the frog is boiled before a critical mass of dysfunction elicits popular pushback.

Which is why a title for such a society might be: No Great Expectations.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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