There was a time years ago when a small coin was the most important thing in my life. I couldn’t buy anything with it in a store, make a phone call with it (hard finding a working payphone these days in New York City), or use it in a parking meter (those are disappearing now too), yet it seemed worth everything to me. I am talking about the legendary New York City subway token.
The token guaranteed me transport, and as a young person in need of getting here to there, the subway and bus were my lifelines; therefore, it was imperative to have enough of these tokens for a given day or week. I have to laugh now when I use my MetroCard – the simplicity of it is so apparent – and remember all those tokens jingling in my pocket.
The great thing about having a number of them in your pocket was their heft; you felt like you were carrying quite a load but there was confidence in that. And with a glorious thing in NYC known as a “transfer,” the possibilities of bus and subway became endless. There was no place I could not go – to the beach, the park, Shea Stadium, museums, Times Square, Central Park, and even the Staten Island Ferry! All five boroughs were just waiting to be reached via the small little coin with a Y carved into it.
So recently I was going through my “junk” drawer and discovered a token. I literally gasped and my kids wanted to know what was wrong. When I showed it to them, I must have acted like I was Indiana Jones discovering the lost treasure of the Incas. It was indeed like finding a priceless relic. “It’s just a coin, Dad” I was told.
I launched into a soliloquy worthy of one of the Bard’s tortured souls. “A coin? Why just a coin; wherefore base?” You get the idea. I went on and on about its merits, about its inherent beauty, about its tremendous value on the ramparts of my soul’s castle. And then, alas, I realized that to my kids it was as meaningless as my childhood memories of running home from school to watch Dark Shadows or my 45 records gathering dust in the basement. This token was never important to them and I do understand that. I really do. Really.
Still, there was a misty feeling of another time and place as I sat with my token in my hand. I recalled when my palms were sweaty during a long ago summer, taking the subway to a concert in the Central Park to see Simon and Garfunkel (my kids have no idea who they are either). There was something so pure about the feel of the coin, moist and yet gritty from my pocket, and then I slipped it into the slot, the turnstile spun as I pushed ahead, and my young limbs ran onto a subway train that would take me to a station where I jumped up the steps and into the sunlight as I yearned to hear “The Sounds of Silence” with hundreds of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers in the sweltering heat. I also recall the cold winter days when those tokens in my pocket felt frozen against my leg, and I had to take my glove off, feeling the stinging ice of the coin in my fingers as I prepared to put it into the slot.
There was no sterility to a token, for it picked up all the detritus of the city and the many fingers that possessed it. While we can see discarded MetroCards lying all over the place in the street and on the subway platforms, I never saw a token on the ground anywhere. I may have found a quarter or dime here and there in my life, but never a token. Subway tokens were New York City gelt, and the precious little coin with a Y was kept safe because it was so dear to everyone.
Now those days are gone. I can add money to my MetroCard very easily. It slips into my pocket quietly, never making any noise as tokens did. There is no feeling of this card being used by someone else, no thought that it had passed through the hands of the huddled masses, for each time I buy a new one it comes out of a machine new, fresh, and dandy. There is such great sadness in this efficiency, and yet there is no turning back. The token is gone forevermore.
I have put my token in a special place – inside my Cap’n Crunch treasure chest (which I once sent away for with coupons cut from the cereal boxes). As a boy I ate my cereal right from the treasure chest, as it was perfect for use as a bowl. Now it contains other relics – including my Neil Armstrong landing on the moon button, a Beatles magnet, a James Bond watch, and a Batman ring. None of these things mean anything to anyone but me, but I kind of like it that way.
Now, I am on to the day ahead. The MetroCard will no doubt come in handy, but now every time I use it I will be thinking of my little friend with the Y in it.
Photo Credit: Cap’n Crunch – redcrosshat.org