Vantage point

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Something happened today that has left me conflicted. If you read this post months or years later, remember that "today" is three days after the Boston Marathon bombings.

I got on the 33rd Street PATH train at Hoboken (the starting point of the train) to head home to the city, and found the compartment mostly empty as usual. There was an old white man at one end and a young black woman at another. I sat down on a seat in the middle of the compartment, opened a magazine, and started reading.

A minute later, some more people walked in. An East Asian woman, two young white women, and a desi (South Asian) looking guy. The desi guy sat across from me about 10 feet away, slipped his backpack off, and pushed it under the seat. He then took a pair of earphones out of his pocket, put them in his ears and sat there listening to music.

I stole a few more glances at him and the backpack. It is not common, at least in my experience, for someone in the NYC area to push their belongings under the seat. On the seat next to them when the train is as empty as this one was, sure. On the floor between their legs, often. That's where my own backpack was. But under the seat, very rare. At least that's what I told myself was the reason for looking at him more than usual.

Soon the train got going. I tried to read the magazine, an article about HBO's new show Vice, but found myself glancing at him and the backpack every so often. The thought "what if the backpack has...." kept looping through my mind without completing itself.

Eight minutes later, the train reached Manhattan and stopped at Christopher Street. I looked at the guy. He was still listening to his music. There was one more stop to go before I got off at 14th Street. I found myself thinking, "I hope he gets off after me". For two completely opposite reasons, which are obvious.

A couple of minutes later, the train stopped at 9th Street. He got up. I dropped any pretense of stealing glances and stared at him. He didn't seem to have noticed. He took a couple of steps towards the door. My throat went dry as I saw that his backpack was still under the seat!

Shrill alarm bells rang in my head and I was about to spring up from my seat. I was just trying to decide if I should scream and tackle him or go press the Emergency Speakerphone button that every train compartment has.

Before I could make up my mind, he stopped mid-stride. He mouthed what seemed like "Oh shit!", quickly retracted his steps, and picked up his backpack from under the seat. He then turned around and sprinted out before the doors closed. The train started moving again.

I sat there, feeling conflicted. And have been conflicted ever since. Was I paranoid or just vigilant? "If you see something, say something!". Was I bigoted against brown people.....which as a brown person myself would make me self-loathing I guess. After all, I didn't look twice at any of the other people in the compartment. Or was I just being rationally cautious? Was it because I once possibly escaped a commuter train bombing because I was feeling lazy and cancelled dinner plans? Or do I harbor the same prejudices based on skin color and race that I usually abhor in others?

I am not sure. Conflicted.