R.I.P.: The SEPTA Token (1965 - 2016)
BY JOEY SWEENEY
If you went to high school in the city, chances are, there was a window you’d go to every week — maybe it was in the school, or at the Rite Aid or some such other drab place down the street — and get your supply. Or maybe a relative, say a reliably kind aunt, worked for an employer who was signed up for a program where staffers received them for free and so every often, you’d find yourself surprised by a handful of sealed plastic bags of five, delighted. Because in a life of uncertainty, the SEPTA token was one of the only sure things in this world. You could have spent all your money on records, or later, beers, and been alone downtown on a forlorn corner with dead batteries in your Walkman, but at the very least, you had a token. And a token would get you home.
The token in your hand represented not just safety, but also possibility. Those plastic bags could get you to Roosevelt Mall, where you could skateboard and smoke cigarettes. They could take you to a girlfriend or a boyfriend in Havertown, long though the ride would be. Perhaps most importantly, they could get you to South Street, where the world you most wanted to inhabit waited with copies of the New Musical Express and big, cheap slices of pizza. If you were ridiculously flush with them, they might even work as an arcade token, depending which one you were in. It was also a sweet move to drop them in your penny loafers; you never know when they might come in handy. The token gave you endless space within a gilded frame, in which you could paint a teenage masterpiece that you could also grow old in. It was magic.
And now, it is gone -- or, more accurately, going. But it leaves a legacy that seems to stretch back forever. The SEPTA token as we’re considering it here today dates back to 1965, when SEPTA was formed out of two previous Philly public transportation agencies. As a work of commercial art, it might have been the most perfect vehicle the SEPTA logo ever found. The token felt sleek in your hand, and the copper stripe across the silver background was more visually satisfying than any United States coin ever minted. Its parent was even better-looking. The SEPTA token’s immediate predecessor dated from as far back as 1940, when the PTC (Philadelphia Transportation Company) first issued its equally iconic tokens. Sometimes, somehow, you’d wind up with one of these in your pocket and wonder how they’d managed to stay in circulation so long?
In recent years, people, present company included, wondered that about the SEPTA token, too. New York City had already raised generations on their Metrocard and were transitioning out of it altogether before SEPTA’s Key program was much more than a PowerPoint deck on a slow, company-issued laptop somewhere. We all made fun of Key, had (and continue to make) jokes at its expense, but really the unsaid thing was this: SEPTA had gone so long without getting their acts together that time had begun to actually accrue back in the token’s favor. Just a few more years, if you think of it this way, and the token would have become endearing, quaint, and necessary to how we think of ourselves in the same way trolleys have. But even SEPTA’s often endless-feeling timeline caught up, and today, the token’s time has all but run out. A quiet phasing out has already begun; one day soon, you will turn around, and you'll be at a turnstile that accepts no coins at all. The Key program is now launching in earnest, and with it, a bridge to the token's obsolescence called “Quick Trips,” a single-use card which admittedly will make a good bookmark, but nothing else.
The token, by contrast, held dignity. The token held a story, the unknowable that dared. The token, God bless it, was currency.