Earlier this year, on one of the first nice weekends of the spring, me and my family decided to venture out of the house so we would hopefully no longer be tempted to murder one another. It was that kind of winter.
Unfortunately, everyone else in the city decided to do the same thing. So we waited forever for a bus to take us to Queensboro Plaza hoping to take the N/R into Manhattan, only to find the platform packed three deep with scrambling, antsy folks who’d clearly been waiting for quite some time. After a ridiculously long winter, the mild, almost-70-degree temperatures felt downright balmy. Everyone was a little sweaty and nervous and pushy. Especially me, as I tried to keep my daughter from running around the platform and zipping toward the third rail like a magnet.
And while I was trying to corral her, I noticed something odd: A large suitcase sitting on the edge of the subway platform, in the yellow space where you’re technically not supposed to stand. It was the wheeled kind, designed to be dragged behind you as you run through an airport or knock pedestrians over on a busy street while you talk on the phone. Its retractable handle was fully extended. The reason it stood out is because on this crowded platform, it was all by itself. No one was standing near it. The suitcase had either been accidentally abandoned or was left there on purpose.
Thinking the latter might be a strong possibility, I looked around, hoping to see evidence that this suitcase belonged to someone. But everyone else standing on the platform gave the suitcase a wide berth, as if it had a force field and no one could get too close to it.
While scanning for clues, my eyes drifted over an older, thin, almost slight man. Nearly everyone else in the station was standing, anticipating a push for the train once it arrived. Not this man. He sat on one of the platform’s wooden benches, his hands folded neatly in his lap. Unlike the rest of the people here, he didn’t look the least bit anxious.
He had a long, wispy gray bear with no mustache and was wearing traditional garb that I would describe as vaguely Pakistani. It looked a lot like these tunic-style outfits my father once brought back from a business trip to Islamabad. (Yes, my dad went to Pakistan, more than once. Your guess is as good as mine.) Somewhere, there’s a picture of me, my two brothers, and my cousin wearing them and looking off in the distance as if posing for a Maoist propaganda poster.
I locked eyes with the man, and it deeply unnerved me. He returned a gaze of pure and utter contempt. This is not an uncommon occurrence in New York City, to suddenly be face to face with a complete stranger who regards you as their worst enemy for simply existing in their presence. But the combination of the abandoned suitcase just a few feet away, the crowded platform, the man’s outfit, and his angry gaze made my brain do some quick and dirty math…
And then the train arrived. We managed to squeeze into it. My daughter screamed for a seat, oblivious to the fact that there were none to be had. I stared out the window. The platform was now nearly empty, but the suitcase sat in the same spot, untouched. The man on the bench did not move either.
The train idled, the doors closing, then opening again several times to accommodate stragglers and others who struggled to pack their entire bodies into the crowded cars. The conductor made several unhelpful, unintelligible announcements. The PA buzzed with feedback that grated on everyone’s ears, like badly amplified fluorescent lights. All the while, the suitcase sat there, rooted to its place.
My heart raced. I wondered, should I grab my wife and kid and run out of the station while I still could? There was an ocean of people between us and the fickle doors, but I could fight my way out if I really wanted to. How would I get them to move, though? I didn’t want to say anything out loud to my wife. Maybe someone would hear me and a panic stampede would ensue. But then, maybe that’s exactly what should happen. Maybe we should all get out of here. Except some people would probably get trampled in the process. Seeing how this crowd reacted to getting on a train, I shuddered to think how they’d deal with a real crisis.
I studiously tried to avoid eye contact with the man on the bench, thinking that if I did make an exit, I’d have to do so somewhat discreetly to avoid triggering his suspicion. I felt like he kept looking at me. Was I imagining this? I didn’t dare look at him to confirm or deny.
The train doors shut with a sense of finality and the power cut out for a brief second. The lights dimmed. Without the sound of the engine and the AC, a silence descended that amplified all the remaining noise, people breathing, music trailing from headphones, babies crying, cars honking on Queens Boulevard below us. I felt an excruciating panic. I was sure I doomed us all with my inaction.
I started playing CYA with the universe. “Hey, it’s not like I was the ONLY person on that platform. Why didn’t somebody ELSE notice that suitcase? Why did it fall to ME to see it and have to act? Everyone on this train is equally guilty if you ask me!”
I briefly saw my picture as part of a mosaic on the front page of the New York Times. What would my tidy little bio say? How many things would I not write now? How many plans would go unfulfilled?
All of a sudden, the electricity kicked back on and the train lurched slowly out of the station. Move! I screamed inside my head, and immediately I felt awful for a million different reasons. For not being decisive enough to leave the train when I thought I should–and with my whole family with me, no less. For wishing the train to leave for Manhattan more quickly just so I wouldn’t get hurt, knowing that others might. And for discovering I was more racist than I thought, for assuming the Middle Eastern-looking man on the platform had something to do with a potential calamity I may have just created in my head.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, New York was a terrible place. Or it was seen as one, anyway, a city where violence would just happen to you in some way or another, a living nightmare hybrid of The Equalizer and Death Wish. My little town got all the NY-based TV stations and the nightly news would bring you one horror after another, punctuated briefly by a sports and weather update, and then a bit more horror until Tom Brokaw.
By the time I first moved there in the mid-90s, this era already seemed long gone. You could walk the streets safely at night–in most of Manhattan, at least. Muggings and crack and riots were a thing of the past. A person could still get in trouble, sure, but conventional wisdom said s/he would more or less have to seek it out. The randomness of city life was now limited to fun randomness, like stumbling across a movie shoot or running into a friend you didn’t even know had moved here.
Unfortunately, randomness tends to be random in all aspects. And so once again New York was treated to the bad kind of randomness, where people blow stuff up for their own reasons that have no bearing on the humans who happen to be in their path. I’m going to out on a limb and say that’s a lot worse than when you would randomly get mugged by junkies.
Ten years ago, I would have seen an abandoned suitcase on a subway platform and thought nothing of it. Maybe I would have imagined who could have left it there in a sympathetic way, like, I hope that guy has enough money to buy new underwear. I lost the ability to do that a long time ago. I’m fortunate that my sense of obliviousness is one of the few things I did lose in 2001. But I’ll never get it back. In the bargain I gained the sense that I should fear things I can barely imagine. That’s very difficult to do, and yet I’ve managed to do it, every day for the last decade. This is who I am now.