Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Bomb Scare

Feeling Small and Stupid

The man across from me is a Muslim, and we are trapped together in this steel subway car. The man across from me is wearing a head wrap, and perhaps he is not a Muslim. Maybe he's just Middle Eastern and my mind connects the two without even thinking. Easy association. The man across from me has dark skin and facial hair, and he is young. He has bright, attentive eyes that scan the car, glancing briefly at the white faces that surround him. The white faces that surreptitiously steal looks in his direction. Uneasy looks. The man, as I have said, is brown of face with a head wrap and we think he is a Muslim.

The rest of his dress blends. Torn jeans and a T-shirt. And at first he is just another person, another man, another rider on the subway train. And then as I glance around and then back to him I see the package. It is a large brown packing envelope, overly big, and he cradles it in the crook of his arm, stacked as 1 or 3 things he holds, the other 2 are books.

And then I think about London, and how attuned I have been since then to what people carry onto the train and how they hold themselves. And this is also the first time I'm aware of my own racial profiling. Because if this man were white I would honestly not have thought twice about it. Well, that is not entirely true, I might have thought twice, but it would not have held my attention.

But I think quickly of London and I look at the package and the face of the man strikes me.

The only other time I felt like this was after Sept. 11. Similar place on the subway, similar situation. A man of Middle Eastern decent hopped on the subway, and my antennae perked up. And everyone on the subway became aware of him.

This began to go beyond that day. For the first time on the subway I was truly scared. I began to do the math in my head. We are at the 5th Avenue subway stop now, heading south. As the train progresses, we will hit 57th then 49th. After that it's 42nd Street/Times Square. If you wanted to disrupt the New York subway system in the worst fashion, wouldn't that be the place? Times Square is the main artery of the subway system. Nearly every train that feeds the city passes through there in some capacity, or even within a single avenue on either side. And as I thought about this the idea became reality.

What are the last moments of your life like? Are you aware of it? I always thought the worst part about Sept. 11 was not the brutality of the day, but the fact that so many people were robbed of their own deaths. They did not get to prepare, they did not see it coming. There could be no ordering of their affairs, no righting of past wrongs. That is how violent, sudden death takes us, but a mugging and a gun shot, a shark attack, a drunk driver, these things do not take 3,000 people in a single moment. None of those people got a chance to come to terms with their own end. The passing was robbed from them, in numbers still too big. And unlike the tsunami, the only current event that immediately comes to mind as have the same senseless effect, you can't blame God. But still, was there that sinking feeling, the same pit of the stomach, back of the mouth, ill-at-ease sense that gripped my gut.

At 57th I became sure the subway car was doomed. The man across from me is not only a Muslim, he is a terrorist. I'm so scared of that fact. What if the package under his arm is not a package? What if there is a timer? And a detonator? What if there is a synchronized plan? What if at a certain time, at a certain place, it's supposed to go off, sitting cupped in that man's arm and then ripping through the subway, maybe even into the next few cars?

What if?

And suddenly I was not able to deal with my own questions, with my own doubts. It's the first time that's ever happened to me.

As the train pulls into the next station I lean against the door. It is 42nd Street/Times Square. The bomb does not go off. But after this the cars will rumble on to 14th Street/Union Square. And then City Hall. And what if I'm right?

I get off. And that stupid saying comes into my head. "We have to return to our lives, because if we do not, then the terrorists win."

I don't understand that concept, but as I step off the train I feel horribly ashamed. I feel humiliated. Torn somewhere between my fear and my understanding that the man with the package under his arm probably saw me get off, just as he was probably aware of all the eyes that were on him the entire ride, just as he may have even suspected that Times Square was not my destination, but that I was going to another line, to transfer to another rail, simply to not be scared of my own fucking commute. And feeling small and stupid.