“Token sucking” — the skankiest crime in history?

Apparently, the explosion of high-tech card-reading machines in the New York subway system has produced an unusual casualty: The vanishing of “token sucking”. Never heard of this practice? Well, this story in the New York Times today describes the technique in sufficiently revolting detail that I probably couldn’t paraphrase it better, so here’s a quote:

The criminal carefully jams the token slot with a matchbook or a gum wrapper and waits for a would-be rider to plunk a token down. The token plunker bangs against the locked turnstile and walks away in frustration. Then from the shadows, the token sucker appears like a vampire, quickly sealing his lips over the token slot, inhaling powerfully and producing his prize: a $1.50 token, hard earned and obviously badly needed.

Even among officers who had seen it all, it was widely considered the most disgusting nonviolent crime ever to visit the subway.

“It gave you the willies,” said Brendan J. McGarry, a veteran transit police officer. “We’ve had cases every so often, these guys would end up choking and swallowing the tokens. Then what do you do? You’ve got to wait for the evidence to come out?”

So, as tokens have slowly vanished from everyday use, so has token sucking. That’s not a bad thing — except, perhaps, anthropologically. We are seeing the dodo-like extinction of what is surely the skankiest crime in history, and, consequently, the gnarliest criminals.

And deterrence, when dealing with someone willing to clamp his mouth to one of the most public surfaces in all of New York City, was next to impossible.

“These guys were on their last legs,” Officer McGarry said. “If they were going to jail, it was just an inconvenience for them.” (In an interview with a reporter for The Los Angeles Times in the early 1990’s, one token sucker acknowledged the depths of his desperation. “Hard times makes you do it,” he explained, adding: “Anyways, I’ve kissed women that’s worse.”)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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