Of course, there was Etti-Cat, a subway etiquette mascot who appeared briefly in the form of train ads in 1962, but Etti-Cat was never fully adopted by the organization and promptly disappeared (some of the ads live on at the Transit Museum). There's Metro Man, who has been on staff at Metro-North since 1983, helping to educate school children about railroad safety. Metro Man was originally a remote-control robot inspired by R2-D2. Although you'd be hard-pressed to find any adults who have ever heard of him, Metro Man still exists today, though he now looks a little more like RoboCop.
By far the most fascinating, confusing, inspirational, and mysterious would-be mascot—and the closest we've come to having a true representative to our subways—briefly came into being 27 years ago. It seems fitting that with the launch of the new OMNY system, whose monochrome "just tap and go" campaign has been plastered all around our trains lately, we should look back at the campaign to introduce the MetroCard, and the MetroCard mascot who almost became a New York legend: Cardvaark.
Although the MetroCard-equipped turnstiles began to be installed around the city in 1992, the system wasn't christened with the name of MetroCard until the spring of 1993. Around that time, the marketing folks at the MTA started looking into different ways to promote the new system, and to boost acceptance and use of the MetroCard, which was replacing the beloved, hallowed subway token. The MTA brass were understandably worried that riders would be very resistant to giving up their tokens, which were as quintessentially New York as a slice of pizza.
Enter Alan F. Kiepper, then-president of the New York City Transit Authority. Kiepper, who had previously led the construction of Atlanta’s rapid transit system, was brought in to run NYCT in 1990. Born in Syracuse, he was seen at the time as something of an outsider: "He was a well-meaning, earnest transit administrator, but a bit of an out-of-towner, and he had a kind of a poetic side to him," explained Ellis Henican, who wrote a transit column for Newsday in the early '90s, and became the unofficial chronicler of Cardvaark.
Kiepper was the person who introduced the Poetry In Motion project into the subways (he also hired future NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to run the New York Transit Police), and it seems he had a creative side as well: "In the same spirit of being light and poetic, I think he thought of himself as a bit of a poet, and he thought it would be fun to have a mascot for the new MetroCard," Henican told Gothamist. "And I believe that he dreamed up the name 'Cardvaark.' It would be like this goofy aardvark character, but with a play on words for this new high tech thing that no one was used to yet, called the MetroCard."
Henican got wind of the plans in the summer of 1993, and became the first and only transit reporter to write about Cardvaark. His first column came on July 27th, 1993, in which he introduced the public to their future MetroCard mascot, whom he described as "a dumb-looking, snout-nosed, big-eared, bug-eyed, round-cheeked, pot-bellied, card-pitching mascot." Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations company that was hired by an advertising agency working for the MTA, was tasked with bringing Kiepper's vision to life. (Henican noted in that first column that initial costs for Cardvaark were $55,000).
As the MTA's internal MetroCard marketing plan stated, Cardvaark was a character who was supposed to symbolize the MetroCard and be "a high-tech yet lovable creature who can `sell' the card."
The plan was for Cardvaark to be integrated into MetroCard's initial $1-million advertising campaign via poster-sized renderings inside each station as the new system was added to them. And of course, an actor was going to be hired to wear a Cardvaark suit and turn up at special events. There were also tentative plans for the mascot to be trotted out at the Times Square countdown on New Year's Eve. (Other MetroCard publicity events that were rejected at the time included: getting a giant MetroCard to drop with the ball at the stroke of midnight 1994, and renting a Jumbotron screen and airing a video which would depict a "token transmogrifying into MetroCard.")
Henican thought the idea was pretty ludicrous, starting his column, "Cardvaark. Just typing that word makes me want to laugh. Cardvaark. Cardvaark. Cardvaark. But Cardvaark is no joke. Not an intentional joke, anyway." In the wake of his piece, it seems the public, other MTA officials, and transit reporters felt similarly.
One veteran transit reporter who wanted to remain anonymous, and who was working at a rival publication at the time, told Gothamist, "I could not believe they actually thought this was a good idea. It was funny looking and had nothing to do with the subway. Nothing. It seemed like it was a joke, but when I spoke to folks I quickly learned it was no joke."
A week after Henican's first column, the dream of Cardvaark came crashing down. In his column on August 5th, 1993, Henican reported that Cardvaark had likely been driven out of town for good after the public unveiling in his previous column. "Well, something terrible has happened to Cardvaark," he wrote. "The people who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are finally coming to their senses. They're beginning to recognize what a silly waste of money Cardvaark is."
Henican credits MTA chairman Peter Stangl with putting Cardvaark out of its misery: "I would say Peter was a more gritty, New Yorky kind of guy," he told Gothamist. "I think he recognized that this was kind of just a goofy idea... It's funny, we have a lot of attitudes in New York, right? Goofy isn't really one of them."
After a long presentation by the MTA marketing department, Henican quoted Stangl's death blow: "'As far as I'm concerned,' he announced solemnly, 'Cardvaark can go away.'"
In the decades since, there's been almost nothing written about Cardvaark besides this mention on a blog. The New York Transit Museum was able to dig up this sketch (at top) for us, but nothing else. Kiepper, who went on to teach at NYU and Rice University and also traveled the world to advocate for municipal investment in mass transit, died in 2009. The archives of Burson-Marsteller, which became Burson, Cohn & Wolfe in 2018, were partially donated to various institutions, and company head Harold Burson died in January of this year. "He would have been the best one to answer," a spokesperson from the company told Gothamist. "His memory of everything related to the company was extraordinary and pretty encyclopedic." We may never know exactly why Kiepper wanted to use an aardvark as the mascot, nor why it ended up being Cardvaark instead of Caardvark.
As Henican sees it, the great irony of it all was that the MetroCard was widely and quickly accepted, even without the mascots and gimmicks. "The MetroCard is one of the things that's made New York better," he said. "It allowed people to have monthly and weekly passes, it allowed them to have an easy way to do discount fares for old people, disabled people and school passes."
The article gave a look back at the previous tokens, and a look to our future at the time: the MetroCard. pic.twitter.com/e5VyLTjlNx
Henican has a compelling theory about why people took to the MetroCard so willingly. At the time, the Washington Metro already had a fare collection system using magnetic stripe cards that you put inside the machine. "It required the rider to give up the card—to let the card go into the turnstile, get read in there, and then pop up the top," he explained. "The MTA believed, and I think this is probably correct, that New Yorkers never wanted that card out of their hand. It was like, 'Holy shit. If that card goes in that machine, God knows if I'm ever going to see it again.'"
That's how we ended up with the swipe system. "One of its benefits was that the card never leaves your hand, so you don't have to trust it. You don't have to trust that machine. It might work, it might not work, but you're never going to lose your card in the machine."
Since his years as a transit reporter, Henican has gone on to write or co-write over a dozen books, become a frequent talking head on cable news programs, and even voice the character of Stormy on Sealab 2021. Of all the stories he wrote about NYC, this was not one he expected to come back up. But if he hadn't written that first column about Cardvaark, spurring the subsequent public mockery of the idea, it's entirely possible the project would have moved forward. Maybe Cardvaark would be shilling for the OMNY system now, as you can see in these reimagined illustrations by Matt Lubchansky.
"I had all but forgotten about it, but I have to say, I got a smile way back in the recesses of my brain thinking about that stuff," Henican said. "I feel like a guy who's been in the witness protection program all these years, and I've finally been fingered as the killer of Cardvaark."
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