Of Beggars and Buskers

In the Alarmingly Cheerful New Subway Cars, New Surveillance Cameras are Watching

Courtesy of trampicturebook.de

Vienna, July 5: I stepped into the U-Bahn at Nestroyplatz and recoiled at the glare. Was it the jarring yellow walls? The red-orange upholstery? The whiter lights?

A few seconds eyes and mind adjusted. Actually, it didn’t look too bad. Actually I kind of liked it.

I mean, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “cheerful,” as such, as long as you don’t get carried away with a lot of irresponsible smiling.

I looked around. A teenager listened to the intoxicated thumping of an iPod; a jowly old dodderer frowned into his KronenZeitung; the cropped henna head on the facing bench stared past me into space.

Sigh. Everything was okay. Nothing had changed. The same old reassuring gloom and doom.

For the last several weeks a new announcement has been broadcast over the loud speaker in all U-Bahn stations that many travellers have been feeling harassed by organized begging.

Rather than encourage this behaviour we are urged to make our contributions to support organizations.

So the new subway cars were part of the Vienna Transit Authority’s (Wienerlinien) new  initiative against organized begging and pick-pockets in the subways, problems that have stirred a wave of complaints from the systems riders.

I settled back into my seat and looked up. A slick new poster nodded at me from above the door. Hold Your Handbag Tight! No Chance for Long Fingers. Nearby, a small electric eye stared down. It was a surveillance camera.

Pick pockets? In the Vienna U-Bahn? Well, pick pockets aren’t exactly the problem Wienerlinien spokeswoman Brigitte Gindl admitted to the Viennese daily, Der Standard: In the first six months of 2006, the Wiener Linien’s c. 375 million riders had reported a total of 15 incidents in the entire 120-line system.

The complaints were about the beggars and  buskers, people strolling through the trains with an accordion or a guitar, singing for their supper.

In May alone the Authority received 68 complaints: “In a moving train there is no way to escape,” Gindl sympathized. But even that the Viennese socialist traditions might have been able to swallow. “The worst of it was that a lot of the buskers play extremely out of tune.”

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