by Alex Gordon
“I’m a creature of apologetic paranoia,” I told Joanna, sitting in the holding cell. “Which is to say I’m not a trusting person,” fumbling my thumbs to illustrate the point, “I’m an anxious person and I’m sorry.”
Perhaps she hadn’t heard me, so I repeated, “Sorry,” with a hint of a question mark, the way I do sometimes.
Having met Joanna just that morning and under such a strange and uncomfortable circumstance, I could only guess what she was thinking. But it was clear that she hadn’t forgiven me.
It began early that morning at a train station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I was begrudgingly attending an international media convention. I had been waiting for the train for half an hour without seeing another person until Joanna showed up on the opposite tracks, a poetic analog not lost on me.
She wore a hijab and sunglasses with blue jeans and carried a black duffel bag which was packed with an appealing symmetry, tight right angles in the corners. Sitting opposite one another, alone in the spacious station, an announcement came over the speaker system about reporting suspicious behavior.
If you see something, say something.
What a wonderfully vague suggestion, I thought. It’s almost philosophical. I wondered what sad English major had coined such a line and how much they were paid for this kind of work. And what process had landed them on “see something, say something”? Was it the phrase’s attractive rhythm or its articulate ambiguity? Was it the appealing legalese, the implication? And what of that implication? Isn’t it asking a bit much? What of the many things I see daily is not worth saying anything about? Am I truly trusted to be the adjudicator of citizen somethings? How am I to get things done if I’m dawdling about all day on the phone reporting backpacks to answering machines?
The announcement repeated twice over ten train-less minutes and it sat in the air while we waited. I considered Joanna from head to toe across the tracks. A perfect example of a citizen nothing, that, in less educated or less worldly eyes might be seen as a something worth saying. A Muslim woman wearing sunglasses inside a train station, carrying a black duffel bag? Surely some feckless bigot might consider that a something, but she had lucked out with me. I’m worldly and I have many black friends and Muslim friends and I own a Quran and I’m British, which in the States practically makes us cousins in foreignity. I had to repress the urge to make my Britishness known, considering briefly making a loud phone call in which the words “bloke” and “bloody” would make several accented appearances.
Then it happened. She unzipped her duffel bag and started fumbling around mechanically like she was tying a series of shoelaces within the bag and I could hear the faint sound of beeping. Then abruptly she got up and jogged from the platform, up the stairs and presumably, out of the train station entirely.
I looked around with what I imagine were some very wide eyes, found nobody near, then looked back at the duffel bag across the tracks. Was it beeping? I closed my eyes for a better listen then the announcement returned.
If you see something, say something.
And what of hearing somethings? If a something is observed trans-sensationally, is it doubly suspicious? And was the bag really beeping? Or were those train station beeps? And what are train station beeps?
If this were to be some act of terrorism, then it was unambitious. Killing me doesn’t require explosives and I saw nobody else around. So why would she do that?
After all, she looked like a hard-working woman, a proud Muslim woman, probably a mum. Was I really so impish and paranoid? Of course she wasn’t a terrorist, women can’t be terrorists. She’s just a mum who forgot her bag and I’m just an Anglo Saxon Brit with an ancient, genetic fear of black people that seeps out occasionally in moments of anxiety, no matter how many black Muslim friends I have. I’m not racist, I’m just an anxious mess and she’s probably a doctor or a successful businesswoman and I bet she jogs in the morning. See nothing, say nothing, I thought.
But then wouldn’t it be worse to ignore such a flagrant something for the sake of not being racist? Am I so unsure of my prejudices that I need to flaunt my post-judices even in private thought? Wasn’t that worse? It wasn’t her Muslimness, it was the unattended bag. Everybody knows to attend their bags, if only for the fear of being misidentified as a something. I hug my bags like teddy bears on international flights for this very reason. Didn’t she know the rules? Did she not hear the announcements?
So I called the number posted on the side of the wall and explained that I had observed a woman desert a duffel bag at the train station. And just as I hung up the call, she returned.
My reaction must have been one of profound surprise, “stage-surprise” rather than “film surprise,” because from across the tracks she noticed me and seemed to wonder what she had done to inspire such awe.
In a moment of absolutely mindless panic, I yelped “Salaam!”
She frowned through the hijab and then my thumbs started feverishly fumbling. The authorities would be arriving soon and I’d have to file a report. And they’d have my name and it would get out and I’d be the poster boy for the pitfalls of citizen security measures and the BBC would run that one file-photo they have of me where I look like a gropey camp counselor.
“I have black friends!” I’d shout from the paddy-wagon.
When the authorities arrived minutes later, I’d done my best to intercept them but before I could do anything she was swarmed by policemen and policedogs and taken away. I tried to explain to the officers that it had been a great misunderstanding, that she had come back for the bag, that she must have been in the bathroom, she had done nothing wrong, she was a doctor for Christ’s sake. I explained that I was a paranoid person whose judgement of danger and safety could not be relied on, that I was simply a worrisome guy and that I make calls like this all the time.
“You make calls like this all the time?” the officer repeated, all eyebrows.
“Well, no not really.” I conceded.
“If she’s clean she’ll be out in an hour, no big deal” he said, noticing my trembling. “Either way, you did a good thing. You saw something and said something.”
It was hard to believe that this edict was actually something spoken in words by humans during dialogue. It seemed as unlikely as dropping a casual “to protect and serve” into smalltalk.
“Do you often receive ‘see something, say something’ calls?” I asked.
“All the time and it’s usually nothing,” he said. “But it’s nice to know there are people paying attention, it helps to know there are eyes and ears out there keeping us safe.”
Blowing off the convention, I went down to the police station where I discovered that Joanna is not a doctor, nor a mum, nor particularly Muslim and empirically not a terrorist. She’s an 18-year old student at Carnegie Mellon.
Apologizing through the holding cell bars, I offered to pay her bail and she explained to me that bail is for indicted criminals and she, as a falsely imprisoned engineering student from a top-tier university, needed none. Her father, a prominent doctor at UPMC, was on his way to pick her up. She wouldn’t look me in the face, but I did my best to explain, though my uneasiness forced it out in an onslaught of needlessly florid speech.
“You see Joanna, I’m a creature of anxiety,” I said. “I’m hesitant to admit it but I’m rapt with a sort of snickering, aching abundance of worry and fear and I sometimes lose sense of my self, and my crippling angst gets the better of my wits and this morning I was particularly upended and deeply disheveled, for personal reasons I need not… and well you have to understand I kept hearing that message, see something, say something, see something, say something, and you kept leaving your bag and it was beeping, I’m sure it was beeping, and then you ran from it so fast, I had no choice but to- and you should really never leave your bag unattended, it’s so important to stay with your bag so you don’t send mixed messages because, well, there are people like me out there who find bravery a difficult virtue to expel convincingly and when we get the opportunity to do so we sometimes misread the situation because of our fundamental unfamiliarity with the concept so it jumps out of us like vomit, er, and I just want you to understand that it was not an act of racism, your burka, hijab, um, it’s great and I just want you to know that that’s not why I called them, it was the bag, just the unattended bag and I don’t want you to think that all Brits are bigots, and moreover that this wasn’t an act of bigotry or racial profiling, I’m simply a creature of habit and my habit is fear.”
She seemed reserved and apathetic and I was out of breath from such an epic whinge so I apologized again and left, hoping to avoid her father who would no doubt sock me in the jaw if he saw me. But as it were, he was entering as I was leaving the station and we had one of those awkward open-door moments and he smiled at me unknowingly.
“Salaam,” I said mindlessly, idiotically, again. He held the door open for me, still smiling.
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” he replied and I skitted off back to the train station, bear-hugging my suitcase to my chest nervously, looking at no one, saying nothing.