Fare Dodger
From the book “Unterwegs” by Hans Dama, published by Casa Cãrtii de Stiintã, Cluj-Napoca (2005)
Permission to translate and publish was generously granted by Dr. H. Dama.
Translated by
Nick Tullius


From an economic point of view, saving money is a virtue that knows no border. And how should we overlook or even ignore that virtue, when we had learned from earliest childhood to honour thriftiness above all and before anything else, long before we saw our first bank advertisement. To save was essential, as meticulous care was needed to have any chances of survival, while trembling in expectation of the “blossoming times” promised by Ceausescu. We were permitted to save at every turn, and we wanted to show it: so we saved everywhere, even where through our saving we wanted to be immediately helpful to the people around us.

As an example, take the railway conductor: He does not have an easy time, irregular working hours, continuous irritation of his sense of smell by various exhaust processes, exposed to shaky and “unstable” workplaces, no matter how diversified they may appear… Why shouldn’t we be trying to provide some help to him, as one ordinary guy to another, in the salary area? And among the ordinary people, there were not only students, workers, artists, and office workers….To help each other meant helping yourself… So, by not buying a train ticket, you did some damage to the state, saved some money, and helped your fellow man – in this case, the train conductor – just by indicating with a wink when boarding the train, that you had no ticket. The events then run their course. You prepared a cash amount equal to a fraction of the fare. The longer the trip, the smaller that fraction - a third, a quarter, on long trips even one tenth of the ticket cost – was made ready to go into the pockets of the good ‘uncle’. Yes, yes, to live and let live was the philosophy of everyday life that saved most of the people of the Eastern Block from despair and nihilistic abyss. That this way of thinking and acting damaged the state did not bother anybody, because in the totalitarian system HE pretended to pay his subordinates, and they pretended to serve HIM, a true vicious circle. [….]

One day I boarded the train at noon, a slow motor train to Temeswar. As always, the train was overcrowded with commuters going to their afternoon shift in Temeswar. I was hoping to find a free seat, where I could do some work during the one-hour trip. In the corner of a large compartment – the wagons were vintage 1930, about forty years past their prime – I spotted Mr. M. and he indicated by hand signals that the seat next to him was available. So I steered myself towards that seat. Mr. M. had previously been station master in P., and had moved with is family to Temeswar some time ago. Presumably he was able to find a better job; so, why not? He was a smart dresser, a good conversationalist, and a polite person. We knew each other, as during my commuting days I passed through his railway station, and occasionally exchanged a few words, or even discussed the progress of his daughter Dana in her school. There was an exchange of cordial greetings and polite inquiries about each other’s health. We touched on his family, the current school of his daughter, and the chores I had to do in the city.

The train was moving along, and the conductor shows up, eager to do his job. I had made contact with the conductor before boarding the train, and was now eagerly awaiting how he would react to Mr. M., as it was certainly easy for him to recognize Mr. M. as a railway employee. And indeed, the good old ‘uncle’ turned pale when he saw me sitting next to Mr. M., but he used his experience gained over decades to elegantly skip both Mr. M. and me, as if he did not want to interfere in our lively discussion. I thought to myself “I made it” and Mr. M. did not seem disturbed that ‘uncle’ did not bother us. When he reached the end of the compartment, the conductor turned around, quickly surveying the situation…, just as Mr. M. got up from his seat and whispered to me: “See you later; duty calls; I have to do my inspection round. Excuse my absence for a few minutes.”  The conductor turned even paler and my knees started shaking…

In such cases, when the conductor knew that an inspector was on the train or was about to board it, he would hand a ticket to his special traveller, to avoid any scandal. This time around the ‘uncle’ had no way of passing me a ticket; how could he have known that mouse would be sitting right next to the cat?

I wasn’t terribly worried about a possible fine, but the prospect of being disgraced made me very uncomfortable. But it was too late now, and the two of them were starting their control round at one end of the train. I was feverishly reviewing the possible solutions. But all my fantastic schemes led only to silly excuses. None of them seemed suitable for Mr. M. I could not do that to myself. From a lost ticket to pretending that I forgot to buy one, there were all kinds of excuses, but none sounded plausible… I was awaiting further developments, and they came soon enough. The conductor, surely with his heart in his boots, was approaching with Mr. M. on his side. The passenger sitting across from me showed his commuter pass.

Then Mr. M. turns towards me and says: “It won’t be long; we’ll finish soon.” My blood pressure had jumped up and my pulse raced like an express train. Embarrassed, I mumbled a few words, but the two railway men seemed to be in a hurry. The other passengers did not seem to care that I was not asked to show my ticket. Everybody was much too preoccupied with his own problems, to care for such trivial things.

Was I out of trouble now? What if he is going to ask for my ticket? It’s important to stay calm, so that he does not notice anything. But it was impossible to remain calm; I was too much in an uproar. I tried to read; reading can be helpful in such a situation. It did not work; Mr. M. was suddenly beside me and said: “Done!” And I certainly felt done with, too.

We continued our discussion without touching on the control issue. We arrived in Temeswar and said our goodbyes, with greetings to his family, and so on. I was going to give the poor ‘uncle’ his money, but he was nowhere to be found. And this is how I unintentionally became a fare dodger, with the help unwittingly provided by the ticket inspector. I went to do my chores in Temeswar with the firm intention to pay compensation to the ‘uncle’ at the earliest opportunity.

Biographical Note

Dr. Hans Dama is a native of Großsanktnikolaus (Banat) and a graduate in German Language and Literature, Romanian Language and Literature, Education, Geography, and Economics of the universities of Temeswar/Timisoara, Bukarest/Bucuresti, and Vienna. Since 1988 he has been teaching at the University of Vienna. He has published numerous contributions on subjects such as German and Romanian literature, cultural history and dialects of the Danube Swabians, as well as poems, short stories, essays, and travel literature.  NT


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