Saturday, February 23, 2008
Tracks of My Fears
"Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed."
Franklin Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but he never rode the R train.
However, I do, and I got a lesson in fear and paranoia on Thursday while taking that very train into Manhattan.
There I was reading my paper when I happened to look up just as we were pulling out of DeKalb Avenue and saw a Muslim man sitting directly across from me.
He had a full-beard, a skullcap, and was clutching a backpack in his arms the way a mother cradles a baby.
So what? The man has much right to ride on the subway as I do. Yeah, he looks different than most people I know, but not really.
My neighborhood of Bay Ridge is well on its way to becoming a Muslim community.
I see bearded men with skullcaps nearly every day when I go shopping. I usually walk by the mosque on 68th Street, where these guys are praying all the time. Why freak out when I see a Muslim on the subway?
Sure, after 9/11 I'm a little nervous about another terrorist attack, but that doesn't give me the right to engage in profiling.
And, of course, I'm well aware of the bombings on the trains in Madrid and London, but that's no reason to get all panicky, is it?
Oh, Jesus! I thought to myself. I'm gonna die!
I knew I was being ridiculous and I was ashamed of myself for thinking this way. I ordered myself to calm down and went back to reading my paper.
That's when I heard this soft whining noise and I looked over to see the Muslim gentleman rocking gently back and forth, his eyes closed, apparently deep in prayer.
All right, I'll be honest: I freaked. I was terrified that this guy was about to launch a jihad right under my nose.
I'm not proud of these feelings at all, but I should mention that when I described this scene to my sister, she said "Oh God!" and when I told my shrink, he said "Oy!" So it ain't just me.
My various personalities immediately launched into a heated debate on what I should do next.
Do I surrender to my irrational fears and get off the train at the next stop? I could just go one car up and conceivably escape any serious explosion. Better safe than sorry, right?
But it seemed so ridiculous that of all the places a terrorist could strike, it would be here on this particular train.
Of course, the cemeteries and hospitals are filled with people who thought they were protected by the odds, too.
And what if the guy sees me running away from him? He might be offended. But then if he is planning on pulling the pin, I could die of political correctness.
I try to be polite and then next thing I know the cops are scraping my remains off the Altoids ads that are lining the upper portion of the car.
Hell, I thought, I'm getting off at City Hall and that's only a few stops away.
Schmuck! another part of my brain responded. Terrorists don't check in with their victims before blowing themselves up. That's why they're terrorists and not personal trainers. Hey, why don't you just ask him to set off his bomb at Canal Street?
But the subway car was so sparsely populated at this time of the day.
The guy's only victims would be me, the loud-talking Jamaican guy and his wife, and a little old lady at the other end of the car.
That's hardly worth dying for, buddy. Go hang out at Starbucks for a little while and come back at rush hour for the infidel stampede.
As far as the praying, well, I've prayed the Rosary on the subway and no one seemed to get upset. And when I fly, I pray so much I'm basically conducting my own mass at 30,000 feet.
No one complained or called airport security while I whimpered for God to spare my life. I wasn't escorted off the plane in handcuffs like those six Muslim clerics were a few years ago.
No, I was allowed to pray in peace. So why can't this man across from me on the R train do the same thing?
My brain started to overheat and finally at Whitehall Street I decided to give into my anxiety and bolt to the next car. I folded my paper, grabbed my gym bag--hey, maybe I had a bomb?--and stood up.
And so did the Muslim man. This was his stop.
Oh, boy. Now what? I didn't have to change cars now and if I did, this man would surely see me doing it and possibly wonder what the hell my problem was.
Of course, he might have been normal, too, and not have paid any attention to me whatsoever. I'm told there are a few normal people around; they're just kind of hard to find.
I did a little underground improv, pretending that--oops!--I had mistakenly got up for the wrong stop, and, oh gee willikers, I guess I'd better sit my ass back down.
I know it's time for the Oscars, but I'm not expecting any awards for my performance. Unless maybe it's for Best Supporting Idiot or Most Delusional on Public Transportation.
I got off at City Hall safe and sorry--sorry that I had been such a boob, sorry I had let my fear overrule my brain and lump all Muslims into Team Terrorist.
We have enough of that hatred going on already without me adding to the toxic waste. I see now that FDR really did know a thing or two, even though he never had a Metrocard.
This incident was the first in a series of problems I've been having on the subways over the last 48 hours.
On Friday, I was waiting for the D train at West 4th Street for so long that when it finally arrived, I too tired and impatient to catch a huge, honking warning sign that every subway veteran knows instantly.
If one car is packed and the next car is virtually people-free, look out. There's something very bad going on in that empty car.
But it was late and all I saw were unfilled seats just begging for customers. I didn't pick up on the foul stench until I was halfway down the car and sliding into my chair.
Oh, my God, I thought,somebody has gone to the bathroom in this car.
The odor was coming from the far end of the car and I think a homeless man had lost control of his bowels. I'm sure he was still in the car, but I didn't want to look in his direction as that might be considered rude.
Meanwhile, the stink was driving people out of the car at an alarming rate.
It was heart-warming to see New Yorkers of all races, creeds, and colors, holding their noses and marching out of this car in an orderly manner and dashing over to the next one for some olfactory relief.
I should have bailed, too, but I was tired and, more importantly, I had a seat. So I sank my head into my parka turtle-style and hoped that 36th Street would pop up real soon.
The train made an unscheduled stop at DeKalb Avenue and--salvation!--there was an R train across the tracks with its doors open.
I sprang from my seat, sprinted across the platform and bounded onto the waiting local. Oh, yes, now I could ride in comfort.
Well, not quite. One of my fellow D train passengers had crossed over with me. She was a woman in her late twenties, or early thirties, with an I-Pod welded to her ears and a seriously incorrect notion that she could sing.
She couldn't carry a note in a wheelbarrow, but that didn't stop her from hog-calling along with the songs being piped into her somewhat feeble brain.
Please understand: she wasn't humming, or singing softly like my Muslim companion from the other day; she was wailing at the top of her voice like Johnny Weissmuller on a coconut high.
My shrink tells me that instead of getting angry, you should try and look at people like these as if they are patients, individuals in need of therapy, not scorn.
For a little while that worked. I looked at this woman and tried to understand why she was so desperate for attention that she had to torture the late night subway crowd.
She must have known she was annoying, yet she took pleasure in pissing people off. Okay, so why the need to irritate? What satisfaction does that bring her?
I don't know. Her singing got louder and my patience began to fail, like the deflector shields on the Enterprise.
They can only absorb so much abuse from the Klingon battle cruisers before Scotty dials up from Engineering and says "Cap'n, they canna take no more!"
Neither could I. As the trained pulled into 36th Street, I got up and walked over to the next car.
I can sit still for imaginary terrorist attacks and godawful smells, but there's nothing like a bad singer to get me running for the exits.
Maybe I should take the bus.