Where my fear of the controller originates
Recently my fear of a controller in a bus was a surprise, but it saved me from a lot of hassle and stress. My crimes of smuggling illegal books, other written material, and East German Marks into the German Democratic Republic (GDR, aka East Germany), purchased with West German Marks (DM) in the west, still haunt me. My many experiences in these police states had an effect on my psyche, even if at the time I didn’t feel the fear I do as an adult.
Not that I regret doing what I did, but in certain situations I acutely feel the fear I felt as a young person. I remember crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin with illegal printed material hidden under the bottom of my duffel. Since I was living in East Germany, this could have cost me my visa and probably a lot of time sitting somewhere alone. Smuggling eastern marks I purchased in the west into the GDR was likely a serious crime. I have not researched this, but I think I could have been in a lot of trouble.
Also probably what haunts me is all the travel as a young person alone. Police stopped and searched me multiple times on the trains. Once in the pedestrian checkpoint they put in a room in East Berlin with my friends and made us wait and sweat. In general, I traveled a lot in the east during a time when there were so many police with machine gun type weapons. I felt invincible as an American, but of course I wasn’t. When I did feel the fear back then, I always suppressed it emotionally.
So, now I am fifty and many of those experiences were all between twenty and thirty or more years ago. But today I still overreact to certain situations that involve security, police, or other forms of authority. Here is a recent story of such an over-reaction in Krakow, Poland. Oh, my fear of the controller and his power was extreme, but not exaggerated.
The botched ticket purchase
My legs still feel like rubber as I begin to record this. Luckily, I could understand some Polish because of my knowledge of Russian. And, luckily, Cora had decided to sit halfway back in the street car. She did not follow me as I went forward to get tickets from the machine with the coins I had counted out. I had checked earlier to make sure I had enough (2.80 zloty per person). But as I tried to get my reading glasses off my shirt to read the coins, they tangled with the sunglasses also hanging there. And splat went the coins. I tried to pick them all up and thought I was successful. I bought one ticket and proceeded to try to buy the next. In alarm, I realized I was 10 groszy (one coin) short.
As an aside, so that you know I am an honest adult, I had always bought tickets and never rode “black.” Schwarz fahren it is called in German, and I believe similarly in other languages. That morning in Krakow, I had also rightfully purchased two tickets for us to ride the street car to Oscar Schindler’s museum. The tickets were very inexpensive, so there was no incentive for me at all to ride black. Especially knowing that we were in Poland and the fear of any controller would be huge, I would not have tried to cheat the system.
Since the machine didn’t accept bills, I didn’t know what to do except go back to Cora and sit down. I guess we could have gotten out, since we had twenty minutes before the first ticket expired. Then I could have gotten more change. Unfortunately, I guess I thought we would chance it. At the end of our European blitz trip, we were exhausted. Getting off to try to find some coins from some establishment would involve quite a bit more walking. More walking when we needed to get back to eat seemed insurmountable me.
Or, I guess I could have gotten off the train temporarily and tried to talk to the driver in English. This actually didn’t even occur to me though, although I do not know why. You cannot speak with the driver while in the car. The driver is in a separate area from the passenger area. Had I thought of this, I would have dismissed the idea, though. I know I would have thought that the driver would just tell me I needed to get the money.
(All of this is me overanalyzing my steps, which is something people with PTSD commonly do. It sometimes makes for a good essay, though!)
So I sat down and briefly told Cora the problem. I very nervously started counting the stations as the street car made its way toward the city center. For some reason, though, I was hoping it was “just” my trauma from years back causing me to panic. (I will write more about my trauma in more detail soon). But I had a strong feeling that Murphy’s Law would prove right. That is, the one time I am riding illegally (having only one full ticket for me and my daughter), I would get caught.
The switch to slow motion
Sure enough, I suddenly heard something on the speaker about “Billet Kontrolni.” Since it was in Polish, those were really the only words I remember understanding. I screamed so loudly in my head! My fear of any controller shot forth through my eyeballs. I was suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings! My brain raced to understand what and where this controller was or if I had misunderstood.
Shortly thereafter, I saw a balding young man with a round face and dark brown eyes, dressed in a white dress shirt. He was moving his way amongst a crowd of young kids who had jumped on the streetcar after we had. They had surrounded the pay station where I had tried to buy both tickets.
It felt like the train was moving very slowly on purpose, so that the ticket controller would have enough time to make it through the train to us. It felt like everything was moving in slow motion except my heartbeat. I imagined that the city or state purposely had the trains move slower when a ticket controller boarded. This would ensure that no one could escape. I actually caught his eye once, and I immediately looked away, the contact not having been any kind of comfort. Of course, I felt I looked even guiltier because I had looked away. But fear of this controller would not allow me to act casually and keep eye contact.
My mind was racing
I immediately dug out the one ticket and asked Cora for her ticket from the morning. Although it was irrelevant, I thought we could appeal to his kinder side if we showed that we had paid for the morning ride. I also got out my money that was just ten groszy less than what was needed for the ticket.
All this was to prove that I had really tried my best to get both tickets. I wanted to show I was an honest person. We had paid four hours earlier for the ride to the museum, and I did have at least one ticket for us. I wanted to show that I had honestly attempted to purchase another ticket. I would explain that I had bills, but the (stupid) machine didn’t accept them, that I dropped the coins, and so I hadn’t been sure what to do. In my mind I was even ready to explain how tired my daughter was, how her back hurt, etc. I would play the mother role as to why we had continued on the streetcar despite only having one ticket.
As all this was going through my mind, I noticed that a man kitty corner from us on the train had immediately stood up. He was heading to the door next to where we were sitting. I caught his eye, but his face revealed nothing. An unverifiable truth occurred to me: he was also riding without a ticket. I hoped we were nearing a station. With that thought in mind and this huge urge to run, I literally ordered my daughter to get up. She complied, and we went and stood by the door.
Waiting impatiently for the next stop
It still felt as though the car were moving too slowly, and I impatiently waited to see if a stop was coming. I did not turn around to see where the controller man in the white shirt was. I wanted to run off the car. Finally, finally, the train slowly came to a stop. Suppressing my great desire to shove the man in front of me out of our way, we innocently stepped off the train. It felt like my pounding heart was visibly bulging my chest in and out!.
I didn’t have any idea what the fine would have been had the controller not believed my story and taken my 2.70 zloty, but I just didn’t want to deal with it. I felt like I COULDN’T deal with it. My fear of having a Polish official confront me was so huge, my legs felt like rubber. My torso felt heavy. I had experienced enough exchanges with the police in East Germany before the wall came down.
We ended up getting out of the train just on the opposite end of the main square. I briefly shared how I felt with my daughter. As she happily looked into shops, I got out my phone to type in some notes. This helped me process what had just happened. It was a nice walk through the square again (such a lively place!) back home to our hotel on the other side. It was clear to my that my fear was rooted in my past experiences traveling alone and in eastern block countries.
But my fear of the controller were spot on
Almost ready to post this story, I read online various posts about how harsh and bullish the Polish public transportation controllers have been. I read about a woman and child crying, about one family who was forced to pay 240 zloty on the spot. Since they did not have it, the controller, joined by another one, took their ID and escorted them to a cash machine. They were told they would be arrested if they weren’t able to produce the cash. It is uncertain whether the controller really would arrest a foreigner. Still, this man had made the mistake of not stamping the purchased tickets. For a ticket to be valid, the purchaser needs to stamp it when they get on the train or street car or bus. Foreigners probably often make these mistakes or try to pretend it was a mistake to avoid purchasing more tickets.
With the adrenaline already rushing through my body and my fear and panic grossly exaggerated, that would have been hard to endure! I know I would have survived. But my bank card only worked in one of five cash machines we found near the Krakow main square. So it might have been very trying…
My sixth sense
As I end this post, another thought occurs to me. So many other situations which are similar to this one have occurred. I have often felt such fear and anxiety because of security or other authority figures. Going through airport security used to cause me great anxiety. Once, an usher caught me recording a concert back in 2007 or so when they still tried to control that. The sensations were so strong they almost enough to bring me off my feet. That tells me these exaggerated reactions are my hidden trauma, perhaps also related to my officially-diagnosed PTSD.
Still, it might not just be the trauma from the past that spurred my body into panic mode. I have also often been told I have a sixth sense. Perhaps it was this sixth sense I have which rightfully informed me of the upcoming great harrassment and trauma that we would experience if I did not get Cora and me off the train as soon as I could. I am hyper vigilant and intone to situations and to people, so this could have played a role as well…Who knows!
My fear of the controller in 2020 is a normal expression of deep emotions that hide inside of me. The fear is rooted in crazy experiences I had as a young person traveling in eastern Europe, which the Soviets ruled at the time. The Stasi (East German secret police) was not a kind organization. Plus, it was one of the largest secret police organizations in the world at the time with a member for almost every ten citizens.
When I lived in the east, the Stasi watched and searched me. The police opened all of my mail before I received it. There were armed police literally everywhere. But I also traveled in other countries throughout the east in my teens and twenties. There, also, police with machine guns controlled long lines to for various controls where extremely rude officials were also seemingly omnipresent. I remember my friend and I laughing and talking to the guards outside of Buckingham Palace until one couldn’t help but smile just a little bit. They didn’t scare me. Instead, I was simply in awe of them and this spectacle I had never witnessed in all my seventeen years. But my fear of police in the east was different. That is why this close encounter with a controller brought up my fear.