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Latest subway brouhaha misses the point

Citizens voiced criticism of the police when a woman selling churros was handcuffed by NYPD officers at the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn.

The police said the vendor had been issued several citations and had refused officers’ orders to move. Also, the vendor was not officially arrested, but briefly handcuffed and issued a citation. Whichever way you cut it, “the optics” as we say in the public relations world, were bad.

In the scale of subway scofflaws and annoyances, the Spanish-speaking women selling churros don’t register at all. The churro ladies usually stay out of the way of foot traffic and sell delicious homemade treats at a good price. They don’t loudly beg for money from strangers or drag their carts through crowded subway cars at rush hour.

Why aren’t the police clearing out the homeless who can render entire subway cars unusable? Why aren’t we seeing more photos of the brain-addled aggressive panhandlers being put in handcuffs, or the people bringing bicycles or in some cases, motorcycles onto the subways being given the heave-ho by New York’s finest?

I get why the MTA wants to crack down on subway fare beaters, but they are avoiding the bigger, harder issues that makes a bigger difference in the deteriorating level of subway service that arouses the ire of straphangers.

Subway riders are furious because the subways are terrible. There are frequent delays and overcrowding on the subways, trains and buses that never show up, and service that is sub-par even when going according to plan. Almost all of the lines have outdated signaling systems that frequently stall trains and the MTA is decades behind replacing them. People have missed job interviews, meetings with loved ones, and even their own college graduations because the MTA’s inexcusable performances.

The transit system has singled out the people who jump the turnstiles and don’t pay their fare as a major issue to be addressed. Indeed the agency reported that these freeloaders could cost the system more than $300 million this year. Its approach to fixing this problem has been typically ham-handed. It spent money on signs and stickers telling people not to use the exit-only emergency exits to leave the subway, as it enables people to run in through the open door to avoid paying. Such a campaign could only be designed by people who don’t actually ride the subway. The subways need more exit-only gates. Taking up turnstile space to leave only stalls people who are rushing to get on a train. People who leave by the exit only gates and the emergency exits while people are trying to get in are doing the right thing. All these stupid stickers and signs do is flush money down the toilet that could be used for upgrading the system.

While fare beaters certainly do account for a major shortfall in the MTA’s budget, but it is small potatoes compared to the larger underfunding issues that require a political solution. It will be a hard-fought battle between the city and state governments, and will take years to make right. It will include unpopular tax increases.

No doubt there should be cost cutting. Why does track construction cost many times more in New York than anywhere else? Why are there thousands of no-show jobs on the books every time we want to build some new track in New York? Solving these issues of construction corruption and graft will go a long way to improving our transit situation, but it still can’t entirely address the funding gap.

This central funding question is the one the MTA needs to tackle first. Without adequate funding from New York State, all the other ideas are impotent half-measures that will drive more outrage than revenue.

Demanding a better 2020

As the presidential race of 2020 is already underway, before the office-holders elected in the mid-terms have even taken their oaths of office, it would be a great time for Americans to demand that the level of conversation be switched permanently to ‘grown up.’ The stakes are very high with the looming possibility of a recession, a bitterly divided Congress and an executive branch in a constant churn. It would be a real treat for a few brave candidates to insist on taking the high road and talking about how their policies will benefit the citizenry.

This will run afoul of the zeitgeist of contemporary politics. Rampant partisanship has created a knee-jerk politics where not only is everyone expected to wear their allegiances on their sleeves, but to be at the most ideologically pure part of the spectrum with blind obedience. Facts that may run counter to one’s argument are “Fake News” or “Hate Facts.” Serious adults don’t use terms like that except to mock those that do.

We’re seeing the worst in tantrum politics and mental gymnastics among both major political parties as the current budget impasse over a border wall continues. Trump’s insistence on a border wall is a clear sign he doesn’t understand the issues, and Democrats are hard-pressed to demonstrate any serious commitment to increased border security or give lie to the notion they want open borders.

Both parties once were able to function and understand nuances of policy. Sovereignty and human dignity are not mutually exclusive. It is inexcusable for Americans to support a porous border and deny our right to a sovereign nation. It is also inexcusable that children would die preventable deaths in the wealthiest country in the world, no matter their circumstances. We are a better country than to let people die of common disease or dehydration in detention centers; we also won’t be a country without strong, enforceable borders—there is no contradiction in those statements.

Let’s all admit that our political opponents are not monsters and that seeing the logic in the other side’s argument is not a betrayal of our own ideals. No, people advocating for stopping family separation at the border are not doing so to create some kind of socialist global utopia just as people advocating for tougher border controls are not trying to reproduce the Third Reich on American soil. These are not staggering revelations to the worlds of adults, but these are gut-punching concepts to hyper-partisan audiences that tend to dominate the public conversation these days.

Future generations will look upon these times as days of decay and decline, when a vacuum in leadership and long-standing myopic public policy exacerbated a fractured society. The values that make our society great can endure even if our institutions crumble, but it means a conscious effort to build new communities for those of us with clear vision and willingness to see beyond the outdated prism of our fraying standards.

We can rebuild communities if we leave the echo chambers of media and engage with the world around us. If we can take anything constructive from the Trump candidacy and record in office, it’s that people respond to frank dialogue and people who stick to their guns. Trump trampled several political sacred cows in his road to the White House—I thought his candidacy was dead when he insulted John McCain before the first primary was held. Have no doubt: Trump’s success in winning office came from his being rooted firmly outside the political establishment. You don’t have to be a fraudulent, vulgar ignoramus to break out of the mold and effectively challenge that status quo. Let the barriers Trump broke down let in a better slate of candidates and activists. There are decent people who hold all kinds of political opinions. Hear them out and be one of them.

Let this be the year you speak your mind and demand honesty and understanding from candidates within your own party. The first step of breaking out of our political rut is to embrace the politics of honesty and change on our own terms.

Demand more from the election of 2020 than we got in 2016. We (hopefully) can only go up from here.

The Anti-Wanderlust of Wintertime New York

There is a habit of New Yorkers to head South for the winter once they’ve reached a certain age or level of financial security. I can understand why but will fight to stay north for the winter as long as I can.

The deep chill of a January and February in New York can be no fun. The outdoors is windblown and desolate, and the normal stroll through the city that is normally a joy is an appointment with wincing pain. The chill combined with the dry air of the indoor heat stresses and fractures the skin, our eyes tear with windy cold, and we fumble for our gloves and try to find the way to both be agile of hand and not feel frostbitten.

But give me the most frozen winter on record and it will still be preferable to the constantly warmer climate of regions south. I can say this with certainty as I’ve had to go to Florida twice in the past three weeks for work and don’t wish to live in a perpetual spring and summer all year.

My first trip to the Fort Lauderdale area earlier in January was a suitable introduction to the tourist-fueled aquamarine madness of South Florida. Just because your company sends you someplace nice for work doesn’t mean that the real word stops, and it’s hard to enjoy the seaside camaraderie when you know a thousand emails are piling up on your laptop.

One of the more interesting parts of the trip was talking to the Uber drivers that ferried me about. In one evening I met a woman from Costa Rica who was an animal rights activist and got caught up in some controversy in her home country around money she raised for abused animals. Later on that night I had a driver whose full-time job was inspecting airplanes that were manufactured; he had been burned in a recent divorce settlement but was working his way back to fiscal and emotional health and had no problem telling a perfect stranger that (well, Uber passengers aren’t perfect strangers – the drivers arrive knowing your first name and have the right to charge your credit card; this may count as intimacy in this day and age).

My second trip to Florida was to attend a financial conference, the biggest of its kind for the investing niche it represents. It was so popular that I could not get a room at the hotel where the conference was held, and instead found shelter a few minutes’ drive away at the Margaritaville of Hollywood Florida.

As it sounds the Margaritaville is a hotel chain based on Jimmy Buffet’s tropical music. And despite this it’s actually a nice place. The room I had was nice with a balcony that had an ocean view. When I arrived, I thought the woman ahead of me at the check-in desk was wearing a pair of beige pants that made her look crudely exposed. But I was mistaken: my fellow hotel guest was speaking to the hotel clerk wearing nothing below the waist except a flimsy G-string bikini bottom and a pair of flip flops. This is what Floridians refer to as “business casual.”

Again, it was the cab drivers that wind up giving you a better flavor for the place. On my final day in Florida, I got to speak with a driver who had moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1973 (you meet very few native-born Floridians in Florida) and had seen it change tremendously. He liked it when it was less populated and he was younger. He had the easygoing manner of someone who had escaped the rat race years ago and could enjoy whatever life threw at him. He was a moderate liberal Yankee who was at ease with the easygoing ways of South Florida and could drink all afternoon with more right-wing friends and still go home friends. He maneuvered around the traffic islands and stoplights with an ease that escapes many of the ride-share drivers of today’s generation. It was a good way to begin my final day in the Sunshine State.

As the conference wound down, people were finishing up their business and making arrangements to get out of town. I managed to book an earlier flight and quickly caught a cab to the airport.

It was 75 degrees when I flew out of Fort Lauderdale and 39 degrees when I landed in New York. It was a strong slap in the face of cold air, but it felt like home.

Work from home during our latest transit hell

New York City is entering a deeper level of transit hell this week.

That transit officials are already saying how bad our commute is going to be and begging companies to let their employees work from home wherever possible is significant and should strike fear in the heart of every New Yorker. Our transit authorities are normally presenting a falsely rosy view of how their systems operate. I have no doubt that the official numbers they give for on-time arrivals and such are soundly bogus, cooked up with some noxious bureaucratic justification and presented with a straight face.

Things on our subways have been getting significantly worse. Commuters trapped hours underground on un-air-conditioned subways, a young man stuck in a train so long he missed his entire college graduation ceremony, trains that are more crowded, the list of grievances goes on. Add to this some new Amtrak and N.J. Transit derailments and you’ve got a strong brew of grade-A clusterfuck ready to be served.

So those advisories to let people work from home whenever possible should be taken seriously. For a lot of commuters in today’s working world, the daily commute is an unnecessary exercise in frustration and lost time. Having the ability to work from home takes a lot of worry off your plate and improves morale.

In this day and age, more companies would save a lot more money by letting more of their employees work from home more often. We hold devices in our hand with more computing power than it took to put men on the moon (really). Anyone with a home computer or a work laptop should be able to work from home easily. If I can figure out how to work from home effectively, any desk jockey can pull it off.

One day earlier this year, when the city was threatened with a large snowstorm and the transit systems were closed in advance, our entire office worked from home. It was one of the most productive days any of us have ever had. Without the horrendous commute to take into account, the vast majority of us had an additional two hours of time to dedicate to actually doing work rather than suffering through getting to work.

At a company where I used to work, they have consolidated so much office space that there will not be enough desks for everyone who works there. So people will always be working from home. A former coworker who lives in New Jersey and is still in journalism (I “crossed over to the dark side” of public relations a few years ago), works from home two or three days a week. He’s running a financial magazine all by himself and he holds down a part-time job two days a week, but he’s getting it done.

There is definitely a benefit to a common work area and having face-to-face meetings that can’t be duplicated over the phone and email. But much of what many of us do at work each day can be done just as easily at home. Technology is only going to keep making that easier.

New York’s transit woes will not improve anytime soon. Everyone should work from home if they can. Ask your boss about it if you haven’t already.

An indictment in the Bronx is an indictment of our city

A few weeks ago I saw a man get arrested at the 23rd St. N/R Station. As two NYPD officers tried to cuff him he broke free of them, and shoved them, shouting ridiculous blather about being treated unfairly and fearing the police. One of the officers pulled his Taser and I thought the man, who looked significantly larger than both of the cops, was going to get Tasered. Instead one of the officers talked him down and he soon put his hands behind his back and allowed the cops to cuff him. A witness told me he was being arrested because he was mentally disturbed and had been on the train tracks.

The cops had every right to Taser the guy, and if I was in their shoes I can honestly say that would have been my inclination. I was impressed with the cops’ ability to avoid violence in the situation. Police don’t always have that option.

Lost among the media coverage of two terror attacks in England and the U.S. President’s declaration about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a New York Police Department Sergeant was charged with murder in the Bronx.

Sgt. Hugh Barry responded to a call last October to find a mentally ill woman threatening officers with a pair of scissors. He managed to talk her down and she dropped the scissors, but she then retrieved a baseball bat and swung at the sergeant, who shot her twice. That’s a very clear case of an officer being threatened with deadly force and responding appropriately.

But soon after the incident New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner James O’Neill condemned the officer, claiming he violated department procedure by not calling for the Emergency Service Unit or using his Taser. Last week, the Bronx District Attorney filed murder charges against the sergeant.

It’s a travesty that should be inciting outrage nationwide. And not because we adhere to some warped notion that all cops are heroes and we should get behind anyone with a badge. This indictment should elicit outrage because Hugh Barry is a human being who has a right to stop someone trying to murder him. This indictment is an affront to decency because #FactsMatter.

New York police are rightfully angry.

The indictment of Sergeant Barry is not the action of a truthful or serious people. It’s the action of an ignorant and myopic ruling class that by sacrificing the right innocent people, they can somehow forge a tenuous peace in a volatile society. We’ve seen this before. Many of the most well-known cases in recent years that spurred large-scale protests and questionable prosecutions were manufactured controversies that didn’t stand up to a desultory examination of the facts. In places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, grand juries correctly rejected politically-motivated criminal charges against police.

But a large segment of the body politic insists that any death at the hands of police fit a certain narrative, a narrative that’s been undercut by the facts at almost every turn. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill bought into this narrative despite very clear evidence to the contrary. They would rather appease an extremist activist movement than work to protect our citizens.

If our city still has any respect for the truth, Sgt. Barry will be back on the job by this time next year and Bill de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill will be looking for work.

I’ll always be friends with someone you hate

“Say it’s not so, Matt,” my friend’s message read, accompanied by a photo of a public figure that I don’t know personally but follow on social media. I explained that I follow/befriend people on social media that I often disagree with, and that while I find some of this person’s views extreme, they were not the murderous villain popularly portrayed in the mainstream press.

My explanation was lost and I found myself “blocked.” It’s a real shame. This is someone I’ve been friends with since college that is generally open-minded and intellectually strong. I know this person from a college debate society, the whole purpose of which is to listen to people you disagree with and debate them peaceably without tantrums or emotional self-immolation.

Maybe this person will find it in their heart to befriend me on social media again, but if not, so be it. I can’t please everyone and I can’t apologize for the opinions of others.

No matter who you are or what your politics, you are going to find I am friends with someone you hate. I can guarantee that to everyone: someone on my list of friends is going to piss you off.

I won’t have it any other way. I refuse to live in an echo chamber only occupied by people who share my view of the world. No matter how right you think you are, no one is above having their opinions and perceptions challenged and there is absolutely nothing virtuous about a closed mind.

In our era of divided politics, trolls on both sides of the spectrum feel morally justified in becoming increasingly uncivil. I’ve had a few people block me or “unfriend” me. One even called me names and blocked me so I couldn’t see or respond, a cowardly low. People engage in this kind of behavior when they have no real ideas or don’t have the wherewithal to defend their beliefs.

But I also have lots of friends that don’t block me. The friends with more substantial progressive activist bona fides – the people who’ve actually been in the streets and done battle with the cops, who’ve been to jail for their activism or actually rumbled with real Nazis in the real world – don’t find the need to block me on social media or prove their online virtue through their computer keyboards. I have friends who are law enforcement officers and military veterans who have been shot at in the line of duty at home and abroad; none of them have expressed horror that I’m friends with people that are communists or anarchists. They don’t need to wear their patriotism or their toughness on their sleeves, they live it every day.

Fortunately, the majority of my friends are confident enough in who they are to listen to other’s people’s views. That doesn’t mean they agree with me or like that I’m online friends with people they deplore, but they have strong enough wits to disagree without name calling.

I can’t judge people based on their ideology alone. Some of the people considered most virtuous in public life have been some of the most miserable human beings; egos rendering them incapable of treating others with dignity and respect. How you treat the waiter or waitress at a restaurant tells me much more about you than whatever politician you voted for last November. So many people who check all the right virtue boxes can’t be bothered to act like a decent human being in real life.

I hope my friend comes back online. I won’t block or unfriend someone just because they hold opinions we may despise. There’s something about my collection of friends that everyone can hate. But I have a great group of friends nonetheless. I’ll never apologize for keeping an open mind to different ideas, no matter how offensive they might seem to others. If that makes enemies out of some friends, then that’s too bad.

If you’re not making enemies, you’re not living life.

New York Taxis: no English required

Years ago, I was helping someone move apartments and we took a cab. We were calling for gypsy cabs as this was in uptown Manhattan where it was difficult to hail a cab. The driver had zero English. Even when my friend wrote the address on a piece of paper and handed it to him, he thought he was going to 124th Street because the number of the building address was 124. He called his dispatcher on his cell phone and him interpret this address.

We don’t expect everyone to speak the King’s English in New York—what native New Yorkers speak is far from the King’s English—but driving a cab or working with the public in this town in any official capacity should require English and until recently that was the case for having a license to drive a cab (colloquially known as a “hack license.”)

New York City taxi drivers are no longer required to pass an English language proficiency test. This regulation had been on the books for a while but not stringently enforced. Ask any New Yorker who has taken cabs in the city regularly and they have had drivers with little or no English. Now it’s just official.

And it’s a bad idea. We don’t have a lot of things that hold us together here in New York or America anymore for that matter. If we’re going to perish in a suicidal cultural bouillabaisse, then I guess descending into a hellish Babel is part of the deal. But the interest of public safety can’t be abandoned so quickly and recklessly.

What’s motivating this in New York is not a lack of drivers who are willing to learn English, but the medallion cab companies losing drivers to startup hailing app companies like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a matter of public policy or politicians’ hearts breaking for destitute non-English speakers, but the cold hard cash that fuels what remains of our “democracy.”

It’s amazing that you can get a driver’s license in the U.S.A. without knowing English, but at least let make sure that those who drive other people professionally know the language. New Yorkers come from every part of the globe and whatever your opinions of our current immigration question, most people agree that people who live and work together need to know the same language.

Technology that’s shaking up the taxi industry will enable drivers who are restricted in language to only deal with clientele they can communicate with. Since you can order any kind of vehicle to pick you up with a ride-sharing mobile application, you can also specify that language proficiency of your driver. Thus the balkanization of the U.S. is advanced further, and all in the name of helping and fairness.

I have never been a frequent user of cabs but in my days of hard drinking and late nights that became early mornings, I would take a cab. Since most cab drivers in New York are from other countries, I enjoyed speaking to them about where they were from and learning about what was going on in the world from people who had a closer connection to it.

New York has survived for hundreds of years in part because people have learned to work with one another despite enormous differences. A common language makes that possible.

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