Perhaps two years ago the University negotiated an arrangement whereby all students, faculty, and staff could have free Metro bus rides 24 hours a day, seven days a week to wherever they wanted to go. Can you believe it? It was like a miracle -- an unexpected and unlikely gift that had fallen from heaven. I began to ride the bus a lot and enjoyed a pleasant feeling of being blessed (even though the poor people, who constitute the vast majority of bus riders in Cincinnati, often gave me hostile looks when they realized I was boarding with a free pass).
As my retirement drew near, I got nervous about the fate of my new privilege, and I was very relieved to learn that emeriti faculty were included in the free bus ride package. But then the sky fell in. In December the University announced that it had renegotiated the contract and that bus users would now have to pay a quarterly fee ($10 for students, $50 for faculty and staff). Frankly, my bus trips aren’t frequent enough to warrant $50, and that is hardly free in any case. I disconsolately faced the end of my free rides and, in my view, the end of my recently resurgent optimism about life itself.
My last free ride was a few weeks ago. I’d planned a special last-day trip downtown, but other things intervened, and I used it instead to catch a ride to the University to commemorate administrative secretary Cheryl’s final day in the department. While I know I can probably afford the dollar fifty every now and then, I’m very gloomy about my loss. Essentially, I feel that I’ve been deprived of the last free ride I’ll ever see. Though getting a free ride seemed ridiculous just a few months ago, its elimination now strikes me as a gross miscarriage of justice. Everything in our lives these days seems like an offshoot of a financial Armageddon. Retirement funds have evaporated, social security faces collapse, health care costs continue to escalate wildly. Many of our seventysomething retired friends are considering returning to work, and their financial advisors are grimly encouraging them to do so. Katja and I have switched to a weaker health insurance plan and our out-of-pocket medical costs have zoomed up. We paid thirteen hundred dollars last month to the Chevy dealer because our SUV gas tank pipeline was broken (apparently because I tried to jam a non-fitting diesel gasoline nozzle into it), and we have had to spend several thousands to fix interior wall damage from a leaky slate roof. All of these disasters, major and minor, have become consolidated in my mind in the form of a single calamity -- the end of free bus rides. That free pass was a tiny beacon of light in the bleak financial wilderness, an unexpected gift from the impersonal mega-bureaucracy that suggested that existence still offered some tiny but bonafide beneficence.
So I’ve stewed and complained and moaned and groaned, but all to no avail. The other day I was riding in the elevator in Crosley Tower. When it stopped at the 12th floor,, I noticed a new sculpted plaque for the Economics Department which identified its presence with a fancy UC logo and ended with a quote from Milton Friedman: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” I thought about that for the rest of the day (and beyond). It had an undeniable truth value. So now I’m trying to come to terms with actually paying for my occasional bus rides. I have to – it’s a matter of economic reality.