There never has been much good about Metro's Farecard machines, and now there's some more bad. Very bad. Listen to the saga of Patricia Black of Seabrook.

One day last September, Patricia noticed that her Farecard had only 20 cents of value left on it. So she marched up to a card-dispensing machine, inserted the card into one slot and a crisp $5 bill into another.

Grind. Whir. Out came a spanking new card -- worth $1.20.

"I went to the Metro official in the booth," Patricia writes. "First off, he told me there was nothing he could do and that he didn't know my $5 bill from the next person's $5 bill. Secondly, he told me he didn't know if I had really put a $5 bill in the machine.

"I was late for my train and angry at being made out a liar. Then this gentleman in the booth told me I had to send in the $1.20 Farecard with a form he gave me to fill out.

"I told him, 'What if I didn't have any more money?' He repeated his instructions. Plus he added, 'Make sure you write a little note explaining your problem and enclose it with the Farecard.'"

Patricia followed the man's instructions. About a month later, a letter from Metro arrived. She opened it with trembling fingers.

Inside was a new Farecard. Yay!

For $4. Boo!

Metro had eaten $1.20 of Patricia's money.

"I'm keeping my $4 Farecard and consider myself lucky that I'm only out $1.20," Patricia writes.

But as she notes, the more troublesome question is what Patricia should have done if the $5 bill she slipped into the Farecard machine had been her last money of any kind.

"Would I be stranded in a downtown Metro station for the rest of my days?" Patricia wonders. "I'm 7 1/2 months pregnant. What if I was ready to deliver? Would the Metro official think I was lying about that also?"

Metro's Marilyn Dicus says that no one was trying to steal $1.20 of Patricia's money. It was an "administrative mistake," fixable by calling 637-1328, which is Metro's marketing office.

As for the improper value appearing on the Farecard after Patricia inserted her $5 bill, Marilyn says:

"What very often happens is the Farecard machine encodes the right amount on the magnetic strip, but the printer does not print the correct amount of money."

A solution is on the way, says Dicus: portable Farecard readers.

These are hand-held gizmos much like geiger counters, which can read the magnetic strip that runs along the edge of every Farecard. The plan is for every kiosk attendant in every station to have one, to resolve disputes exactly like Patricia's.

When will the gizmos arrive? "Eventually," says Dicus. For now, only supervisors have them. So for the moment, a solution is beyond the horizon, not on it.

What about the "last $5 bill" problem?

If you're beginning your journey when you discover that your Farecard isn't worth what you thought it was, Dicus suggests discussing the situation with the kiosk attendant. She says the two of you "can come to an agreement most of the time."

Translation: the kiosk attendant will probably slip you a Farecard for the cost of your journey. Most attendants have a stash of them on hand for exactly these situations.

If you're ending your journey when you make your discovery, Dicus again suggests consulting the kiosk attendant. If he has an ounce of compassion -- and most attendants do -- he'll probably just steer you through the emergency exit with a wink and a nod.

I still say putting out a barrel and trusting passengers to drop 65 cents into it would be painless, errorless and hassleless. But I guess I just don't understand the modern world.