Its early morning in the Nyugati Underground. The ladies of the night who will later patrol this territory are tucked up in their beds. The kebabs are not yet rotating on theirs spits, and nobody is handing out leaflets outside Burger King.
As the clock nears 7, the bleary-eyed commuters begin stumbling down the steps towards the metro entrance. Shuffling along with them, I, Sofia DeLockhart, BKV bandit and ticket-skipper extraordinaire will again attempt to slip undetected past the Controllers and on to the metro. I have come close, yet never been caught.
But there is definitely a first time for everything. It would be difficult to say exactly how many people like me try to beat the system every day. But I am certainly not alone. Immortalized in Nimrod Antal’s 2003 film Kontroll, this game of cat and mouse played out on Budapest’s buses, trams and metro system is free to join but difficult to master. And it’s not just about saving money. There is real thrill in this sport.
It seems that everyone has their own adrenaline-pumped story about dodging the transport Gestapo. People’s eyes light up as they explain how they were chased through the metro stations or sneaked off a bus just in time. Getting away with it seems to involve a combination of psychology, awareness and stealth. Not to mention a healthy dose of old-fashioned luck. But how long, I wonder, until mine runs out?
My heart has already skipped a few beats as we approach the gates. I gravitate towards the oldest and most miserable looking guard, expecting him to be the least likely to pay any attention. The slightest twitch or false move and he may actually look and realise I have been using the ticket for 3 weeks. But I am good at this. Moments later I am standing at the platform, the hairs on the back of my neck still tingling.
At Moskva Tere I notice that tickets are also being checked at the exits. This could be a problem, but I have wriggled out of these situations before. If I try to run now I will definitely bring attention to myself, and there is no way back down the escalator. This calls for some amateur dramatics, the part of the game I like best.
Avoiding eye contact and talking loudly into my switched off mobile phone, I hand my old ticket to the Controller. As he strains his eyes to read the smudged date I speed past him, strutting towards the exit as though late for a meeting. I hear him call after me, but it is too late and the crowd outside swallows me up. My heart is pounding as I head toward the 4/6 Tram and a tiny voice in my head is telling me that this is the day they will catch me.
I and the other fare dodgers gravitate towards the middle of the tram, away from the doors and with enough space to spot who is getting on. A teenage girl stood next to me is clearly playing the same game, peering left and right and craning her neck to get a good look at anyone moving down the tram. At the sight of anyone inspecting tickets I, the teenage girl and probably half the passengers on the tram will start to slowly move away and jump off at the next station.
At every stop we profile the boarding passengers; too old, too pretty, shoes too expensive, too many piercings. A sullen-faced middle-aged man in a black bomber jacket has the look of a Controller all over him. We all freeze when he slides a hand into his pocket, but instead of green arm band he produces as newspaper.
I am starting to lose my nerve so I decide to get off and walk the rest of the way. Sometimes it’s best to know when to stop and cash in your chips. I have survived another day as a BKV Bandit. And as for tomorrow, well that’s just another ride.
Photo: Scene from Nimrod Antal’s debut film, ‘Kontroll’.