Police officers are at the turnstile when I arrive. They’re laughing and teasing each other about someone named Charlie. Sometimes they are at the station for “presence” – to make the general public feel better about things we no longer feel good about. And petty crime on the subway has gone way down, so I try to focus on that and not the reason I know they are really here. Because the truth is with seven million passengers a day, 468 stations and 26 train lines, how could you possibly prevent…I’m going to stop there. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Today the three of them are standing behind a folding table and signage that they have the right to inspect our bags. No one is singled out from the clump of people around me swiping their Metrocards. Some of the items in my messenger bag might make me a suspicious character: one screwdriver (Philips), empty plastic wrapping from gum, a worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye, a flyer announcing upcoming events at the KGB Bar, a book of matches from a restaurant I was at last night.
Since inspections began shortly after the London bombings in July 2005, I’ve witnessed only one woman having her bags opened on the folding table. In fact, I have seen people enter the subway wheeling dozens of boxes stacked on dollies, usually messengers. They pay their fare, get buzzed in through the special door, the one right next to the inspection table, and carry on. An unscientific survey of people I know reveals only one young Asian male was subjected to an inspection, which he described as “made me miss my train but no big deal.”
September 11th and the London bombings spawned a new generation of “SubTalk” posters, which in this age of non-culpability, I like to classify as the “We warned you” series. These posters let the riders know that “if you see something, say something,” meaning “we can’t be held responsible for what happens if we’re unaware.” One image is of a mysterious black duffel bag left unattended under a seat. I think about the messengers heading unheeded to the platform with all of their boxes. Realistically can they be subjected to inspections every day when they’re most likely just trying to do their jobs? If they are waved through unchecked, how do I know when to “say something” about the duffel bag under the seat? Because if I tell a conductor then all the trains on that line get backed up and rerouted because of an “incident.”
Borrowing the color system of alerts from the Department of Homeland Security, an incident would be red while a police action or signal problem/door malfunction would be orange and the sick passenger yellow (appropriately enough). An announcement of any of the above produces a wave of clucking and eye rolling among the passengers but it gives me an indication as to the course of action to take. If there is an incident, I’m off that train like a shot trying to find alternate routes. Unless, of course, the conductor tells us while we’re in the tunnel. Then I just worry because there’s nothing to do but wait. The problem is the word. Incident. It gives no indication to the severity or magnitude of the problem. There was an incident years ago when a deluge of rain flooded portions of subway tracks for hours while the pumps tried to catch up. Then there was the incident when my train was greeted at West 4th Street by Hazmat wearing gas masks. Don’t forget the incident on September 11th.
In addition to the helpful posters, other new items in the war on terror include tiny police booths on either end of the entrance to subway tunnels that run under the East River and clear garbage cans. The garbage cans with silver trim and oblong shape look like they’ve been deposited by an alien spaceship. At my first sighting in the Jay St./Borough Hall station I wasn’t the only one who circled around it. A police officer tapped it with his shoe and peered inside. Yup, it’s a garbage can. It’s the New York way. We aren’t fond of change. Throw something new at us and we’re discombobulated for a few minutes. Once we’ve scrutinized the situation and accepted it, it’s business as usual, like it’s been that way forever.