See Something, Say Nothing, and try to roll with it

BY ALPHIE MCCOURT  |  On a recent weekday morning, at about 6:15 on our faithful C train, there were about a dozen people in the carriage. At Times Square some got off and a few people boarded. Along with them came three Transportation Safety Agency personnel, two men and one woman.

I was sitting at the end of a long expanse of seating, next to the center door. The taller of the two T.S.A. men carried what looked like a large wooden briefcase, the kind of case often used by artists to carry paints and brushes. He sat down next to me, on my right. Even with a long expanse of vacant seating space, he has to sit next to me.

The woman stands beside me and to my left, with her back to the door, facing across the carriage. The second T.S.A. man takes up his post. Standing, at a right angle to her, he is facing down the carriage and, incidentally, in my direction. With T.S.A. all around me I begin to wonder if I might not be on a “no-ride” list.

In an odd way, I am reassured when three members of the New York Police Department, two women and a man, enter the carriage. The man is about six-foot-two, the women maybe five-eight or five-nine and marginally overweight. The male officer carries a folding table. He stands with his back to the door, right across from me, the folded table’s legs facing outward. (I fancied that he was carrying an easel to match up with the T.S.A. officer and his case of artist’s materials. Is our Mayor Bloomberg about to embark on some new initiatives? Paint and lose weight, maybe?)

One of the two female police officers stands to the left of the table, facing in my direction. The second, the female lieutenant, stands to the right, also facing in my general direction

The three of them form a small semicircle directly across from me. There are no other passengers anywhere near us.

In 1980, while on vacation in Dublin, Ireland, with my wife and daughter, I decided to take a trip up to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, to see my father. I hadn’t seen him since 1955. I made a couple of phone calls and found out where he was living. Those were dangerous times in Northern Ireland, so it was decided that I should go by myself.

At the Border a number of uniformed personnel boarded the train, two of them with their weapons in the port position. (Shades of old black-and-white World War II movies: There’s the train, the officials, in their uniforms and black overcoats, and the terror of the guttural interrogatory, “Vayre are your papers?”)

I took one look at them and my gorge rose. All the ancient angers and resentments came to the surface. If I made eye contact I would betray myself. Worse, I might say something. (Detention without trial was commonplace in Northern Ireland. Even in Southern Ireland, in the Republic, they had been “interning” suspected I.R.A. members, without trial, since World War II). I had been reading a newspaper. I had read just about everything I wanted to read, but there was nothing for it now, only to put my head down and scan the obituaries. Soon, the moment passed, the officials left the train and we moved on.

On a second trip, in 1983, I again went to visit my father in Andersonstown, the Catholic enclave in West Belfast. This time, on the train, I kept my head down as we approached the Border. That evening, in the twilight time, I went out to buy milk, or bread or something. My father lived in an apartment in a public housing estate. The houses were nearly identical. It would be easy to mistake one street for another, even one house for another. I walked along, preoccupied with keeping track of where I was going. From around the corner of a house, a British soldier, in full fatigue regalia, jumped out in front of me. His rifle was at high port. He must have been waiting for me, playing his little game of surprise. I stopped, startled. “Good evenin’,” he said. I almost laughed. “Good evenin’,” I replied, and continued on.

A British solder in West Belfast is no surprise. But the T.S.A. on the C train? Who is minding the store at Kennedy and La Guardia? Is it a full moon? Are we in danger of being hijacked? The “Taking of the C Train” doesn’t have much of a ring to it but maybe they know something that we don’t know. (Prior to the events of Sept. 11, we are told, the C.I.A. wasn’t talking to the F.B.I. And neither one was talking to anyone else. Many of us New Yorkers, tacitly or otherwise, welcome the separation that exists between our own police force and the feds. Especially when it comes to immigration policy).

Now, on the C train, New York’s Finest seem distant, embarrassed, maybe, at being seen in the company of the feds. The feds, for their part, appear to be indifferent to the N.Y.P.D. Together, yet not together, they are a reluctant bride and groom.

So, what should I do? Put up my hands and take my chances with the N.Y.P.D.? Or take off my shoes and risk it with the T.S.A.? Once again I am saved by a newspaper. So surprised was I, by the sudden arrival of all the uniforms, that I had stopped reading. Now I take refuge in the sports section. Baseball will legitimize me with both feds and cops.

The two-minute ride from Times Square to Penn Station is forever. At Penn Station the three T.S.A. people, in good order, along with their case of artist’s materials, quickly leave the train. The tall N.Y.P.D. officer, carrying the easel/folding table, follows, with one of the female police officers right behind him. Not so the woman lieutenant. The conductor closes the train doors and she is caught in a squeeze. It may be love but the lieutenant is not amused. As she struggles to free herself, she glares down the platform, presumably in the direction of the conductor. She is probably embarrassed, in front of her colleagues and, more especially, in front of the T.S.A. people. And she is furious. She is in a difficult situation. We’ve all been caught in the doors, at one time or another. I feel a deal of sympathy for her.

Had the conductor closed the door on the T.S.A. he or she might have been whisked away to Guantanamo. It’s much safer to take a chance on the N.Y.P.D. Detention is not high on their agenda. Given a choice, in the case of a minor infraction, a police officer may well glare, rebuke you and tell you to move on — but, for the most part, they are practical, at least as long as you are white and passably middle class. They prefer just to go about their business and deal with more serious matters. The T.S.A. has a broad, and often petty, agenda and casts a much wider net.

The doors open. The lieutenant is released from captivity and the train moves on.

Freed now from the overbearing presence of the N.Y.P.D., the T.S.A. and, for all I know, the imminent arrival of the National Guard, I relax. It’s ridiculous but I feel as if I, like the lieutenant, have been released from captivity.

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2 Responses to See Something, Say Nothing, and try to roll with it

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