How a SEPTA conductor lifted my faith in my fellow man

     Passengers line up at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    Passengers line up at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    After some confusion about overnight parking at a SEPTA station, a conductor assures a hurried, weary traveler that he won’t get towed. You might be surprised to find out why.

    This can be a simple story. It tells itself. You’ll have the gist of it by the end.

    It is a late afternoon a few weeks ago. I receive sudden notice that I must get to New York for business the next morning. I quickly pack a bag and drive to Devon Station on SEPTA’s Paoli/Thorndale line running across the western suburbs. Devon to 30th Street Station, then AMTRAK up to New York for a night in a hotel — it’s a scramble.

    At Devon, I’m confused about the parking. If four quarters in the coin slotbox are good for 5 a.m. to 2 a.m., as the sign says, will eight quarters cover me through the night and into the next evening? With my smart phone I google for SEPTA phone numbers (failing to notice several in plain sight at the station), and call the first customer-service line I come up with. Eight quarters should do, I’m told.

    Soon the 5:39 train, its brakes hissing in the dark, pulls up to the cold, lonely platform. I hurry to board, but I’m unsettled about the overnight parking. How would SEPTA police it? What’s more is the warning: “Violators are Subject to Ticketing & Towing at Owner’s Expense.”

    I really don’t want to get towed.

    As I pay the conductor the fare, I tell him of my call to SEPTA and my doubt about whether eight quarters will do. How can I avoid a tow? He has the typical conductor’s air of brisk authority, yet he gives me a sympathetic ear.

    “You should be okay, if that’s what they told you. I’ll give you my cell phone number. Call me tomorrow if you’re still concerned.”

    As the train nears Strafford Station, and the conductor rushes off to help people, I am left puzzled. What can he do for me tomorrow? Call the stationmaster? On his next pass through the carriage, the conductor hands me a ticket stub with his number scrawled on it. I write my parking-space designation, No. 8, on my business card and give it to him. But I’m just starting to say my thanks when he’s off for the next station stop.

    I don’t try to catch him again to press for details. He’s a busy man.

    That night I’m talking to my wife. In the tactful way that is hers, she tells me I blew it. To park overnight at Devon, you must put in the slotbox an envelope with a check payable to SEPTA and a note providing, among other details, your parking-space number, the date you parked your car, and the date you’ll pick it up. Navigate the SEPTA website, and you learn this.

    I really, really don’t want to get towed.

    From New York early the next morning, I call Devon Station. The stationmaster has nothing to do with parking. I call customer service. Whatever I was told before, the agent says, I need to deal with the office that enforces the parking rules. I call that office — and I’m assured that my car will still be in Devon when I return, albeit with a ticket on the windshield.

    I feel a surge of relief. It was good of the conductor to offer to do whatever he had it in mind to do. But I can pay the ticket or appeal it. I’m not going to bother the guy.

    That evening, I find my Honda CRV in parking space No. 8. It is beautiful to behold. But the parking office seems to have got one thing wrong. There’s no ticket. I take my luck and go home.

    The next day, checking voicemails I’ve neglected, I find one from the conductor: ” … Just wonder what you want me to do …” He had phoned the morning I was in New York.

    I return the call to thank him for his solicitude. It turns out it wasn’t needed, I say. I didn’t even get ticketed.

    Don’t think anything of it, the conductor says. He’d do it for anybody.

    He’d what?

    We talk more, and it turns out he routinely drives near Devon on the way to the SEPTA station where he begins his day. So he had stopped to slip two more quarters into the slot for No. 8. I can’t say exactly when SEPTA checks the slotbox, but I figure it was that extra 50 cents that saved me grief.

    No, the conductor won’t take a mailed tip, no, not even the 50 cents. Okay, if I want to write some kind of article, he won’t object, but I shouldn’t make a big deal of it. If I want to mention his name, he guesses he can go along with that.

    James Gentile.

    Jim.

    It often happens like this, doesn’t it? Something pops out of your day-to-day to lift your regard for humankind, and you never saw it coming.

    Richard Koenig is a NewsWorks contributor. Formerly he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Newtown Square, Pa.

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