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Monica Porter

Letter from New York

Talk of the Town – The Independent, 10 August 2003

The evil that men do, part 363: felonious use of a milk crate

Disturbing news from across the Atlantic. It seems that the New York City administration is short of cash – again – and in order to pump money into its coffers Mayor Bloomberg has put pressure on beat cops to issue more tickets to law-breakers. Now, we’re not talking serious miscreants here. These are people simply going about their daily business, only to be slapped with a summons for unwittingly committing some obscure or downright ludicrous violation. It all began in May, bizarrely enough with a milk crate.

A 19-year-old Bronx man, Jesse Taveras, was sitting on a milk crate outside the hair-braiding salon where he works, when a policeman handed him a ticket citing him for ‘unauthorised use of a milk crate’. When Taveras objected, the cop shrugged and said: ‘Don’t blame me, blame Bloomberg.’ While it was true that the crate on which the hapless hair-braider had planted his bottom bore the imprint of its owner, Sunnydale Farms, and a warning: ‘Use by anyone but registered owner is liable to prosecution, article 17A, General Business Law,’ even Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Joan Carey admitted that she had never heard of the violation…before insisting that Taveras would nevertheless have to cough up, with the amount of the fine to be decided.

When the New York Daily News ran the milk crate story and asked readers whether they had received any similarly outrageous tickets, emails began arriving from all five boroughs, and the paper has been running its ‘silly summons’ stories ever since. It turns out that the city has been milking its denizens at every turn.

Take the case of Crystal Rivera, a pregnant 18-year-old student, who sat down for a quick breather on the steps of a Brooklyn subway station. A female police officer handed her a $50 ticket for ‘blocking a stairwell’. ‘I told her I’m pregnant, my back hurts and I’m tired,’ said Rivera. ‘And she was like, “Well, you can’t sit there.” How hard would it have been for her to say, “Can you please get up?” There was no reason to give me a ticket.’ She vowed to fight the summons in court.

An indignant James Smith is to appeal against his summons, too. The 42-year-old store manager had bent down to pick up some coins which fell from his pocket as he entered a Bronx subway station, and was issued with a $50 ticket for ‘obstructing pedestrian traffic flow vicinity’.

Clearly, the entire New York subway system has become a place of great peril – not from muggers, rapists and psychopaths, as in the old days, but from ticket-happy cops. One victim was Israeli tourist Yoav Kashdia, who nodded off on a near-empty F train to Jamaica, Queens. As the 22-year-old slept, his head and arm slumped on to the next seat. Two uniformed cops prodded him awake before ordering him off the train and patting him down. When a shocked Kashdia asked what he had done wrong, he was issued with a $50 summons for having taken up two seats. He pleaded with them: ‘I’m just a tourist, I had no idea,’ but the officers refused to relent. ‘I wanted to spend this $50 here,’ remarked the wronged Israeli, ‘but not on a ticket.’

Then there is the story of the Queens grandmother who got busted for blabbing. Noris Lopez, 62, didn’t want to leave the pot of beans she was cooking on her stove, so she chatted through the open door of her apartment to a neighbour across the hall. She was fined $25 for ‘making an unreasonable noise’ by a housing cop who heard the lively chatter from the building’s elevator.

Meanwhile Kim Pann and Bruce Rosaro, employees in a Bronx barbershop, stepped outside for a quick smoke before closing time one evening, when a cruising cop pulled up and fined them for ‘loitering’. ‘Blame it on Bloomberg,’ the cop was reported to have told them before driving away.

Small wonder that the billionaire mayor has been dubbed Gloomberg.

Naturally, City Hall officials vigorously deny that policemen are being forced to churn out money-making summonses. The cops, however, disagree. Al O’Leary, spokesman for their union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, claims that while policemen once had the discretion to deal with matters ‘in ways which did not necessarily extract money from the pocket of the person affected’, they were now being told to enforce the law at all costs. There has even been talk of cops having to meet ‘illegal quotas’ for handing out tickets.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in New York City…

Makes life in London seem most agreeable, doesn’t it? We grumble about traffic jams, road works and the congestion charge, but we can natter across hallways and slump on to Tube train seats and pick up fallen coins to our heart’s content. Unlike those absurd Americans, we are sane and sensible. And Ken Livingstone, for all his irritating proclamations, is an old sweetie compared to the obnoxious Mayor Gloomberg.

But before we get too complacent, let’s remember that just about every unfortunate trend spawned across the water reaches our shores sooner or later. Junk food. Political correctness. Jerry Springer. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we are running silly summons stories of our own. Personally, I’m taking no chances. I’m off to find a milk crate to sit on, while the sitting is good.