I stood on the north end of the Howard Beach subway station platform at JFK airport in Brooklyn. The sky was a rich cloudless blue and the air felt moist, like a new Spring, even though May had just turned into June. In the past the trek back into New York used to bring with it either an exhilarating joy or a foreboding sense of dread. Today, however, it elicited only apathy. I had been in New York for over five years now. New York had merely become the place that I lived, a city both unlike any other and at the same time the same as all the rest.
I had just returned from Cleveland after an underwhelming and slightly depressing ten year high school reunion. Of the thirty odd people who had bothered to attend, at least half the people were married and at least half of those already had children, houses and country club memberships. I couldn’t help feeling perversely jealous of these boring happy people as I waited in line for a taxi, wishing I that had a car and a house of my own to return to instead of a rented 500 square foot shoebox on 100th street. As I stood there pondering the uncertain course of my current life the big, free yellow and blue bus, that retrieved frugal travelers and deposited them at the subway platform, pulled up not far from where I was standing. It was only 6:00 PM and the subway would only cost me an extra half-hour, so I figured I’d save the thirty-five bucks and take my girlfriend out to dinner with the money as a sort of welcome home surprise. I hadn’t offered to take her and she hadn’t offered to accompany me on this particular trip, so dinner seemed like a good idea. On the one hand I’m sure she would have appreciated the invitation, but on the other hand we both knew she would much prefer spending the weekend at the summer share we had rented in Long Island. I remember once attempting to weasel out of one of her painful mini high school reunions by arguing that until we decided to get married it was unfair to force me to hang out with her friends. The reason, I argued, was that if we didn’t get married I’d never see them again anyway and I already had enough friends I didn’t get to see as it is. If, on the other hand, we did get married I’d have to spend more time than I care to consider with them. Either way you sliced it, it seemed to me that I shouldn’t have to be subjected to the pleasure of their company until I felt legally bound to do so. You can probably imagine the look of annoyance that spread across her face as she sat listening to the logic of the argument.
I lugged my golf bag and a small weekend bag up onto the mostly empty bus and slunk back into dirty fabric seat of the Port Authority Free Airport Shuttle. Of the people sitting on the bus, they appeared to be divided equally among: 1) budget backpackers frantically flipping through travel books for the method to most cheaply enter the city 2) tired looking airport employees or 3) seasoned New Yorkers who would rather save a few bucks than make themselves car-sick riding in the back of an obnoxiously driven cab with barely functional air conditioning. At the Northwest terminal a yuppie couple wheeled a curly-haired baby onto the bus. The baby sat sucking a bottle full of milk and staring at me with that perplexed expression all babies seem to wear for the first few years of their life when placed in front of an unfamiliar face. When the bus took a hard right the stroller lifted to the right and before being steadied by the startled looking mother. The baby, having just registered a primitive feeling of fear, let the bottle slip from his lips and muttered “Sorry Mommy.” She paused and in a consoling voice replied, “It’s okay honey, its not your fault.” I smiled as I watched the interaction and thought to myself how I’d never want to subject my children to the harsh realities of New York. The couple got out at the long-term parking lot just before the subway stop. I watched as the baby stared at me as they rolled him away. I waved as the stroller disappeared through the heavy bus doors. I watched them wheel the baby to a black Volvo station wagon with Connecticut plates, and shuddered thinking about how their life might look a lot like mine a few years down the line.
Once at the subway stop, the now uncomfortably packed bus emptied hurriedly towards the subway gate. I awkwardly maneuvered my golf bag through the turnstile as I ran my Metrocard through the scanner and waited to feel the bars release and usher me through. I lumbered towards the platform, proud of myself for having the discipline to haven taken the subway instead of a cab. There weren’t many people standing on the platform when I arrived which, most likely, meant that a train had just been through. They ran every twenty minutes or so, so I reached into my gold bag searching for the one cigarette that I knew remained in my bag from the weekend. I had been trying to restrict my smoking to Thursday through in an effort to prove to myself that nicotine wasn’t an addictive drug. But it was a brilliant afternoon and I knew I’d smoke it sometime if not now, so I decided to indulge myself in that sexy New York aura of self destruction. After unearthing it from a sea of multi-colored golf tees, balls and ratty leather gloves, I extracted the this last lonely cigarette from the pack and tucked it behind me right ear. I turned and leaned out over the track to make sure the train wasn’t anywhere in site and returned to the bag to look for a pack of matches. After a few minutes of futile searching, I forgot about the smoke behind my ear and circled back to the platform to check again on the train.
This was one of the only outside subway stations I had ever been on, and remarkably trees managed to grow through the cement surrounding the metal fence that bound the platform from the parking lot. The trees were full and fragrant- fragrant by New York standards that is. The sun shone a stream of warm rays on my face as I squinted into the sun enjoying the cool breeze that made its way along the tracks. I reached into the back pockets of my jeans and stretched feeling relaxed and just a little tired. My girlfriend and I hadn’t spent a weekend apart in a few months so I was anxious to see her and go out for a leisurely dinner at a new Brazilian restaurant that had open a few blocks from our apartment. As I pulled my hands from my pockets my hands brushed against pack of matches that my friend Dave had insisted that I remove from his car earlier that day. His wife usually gave him hell for smoking and then never missed the opportunity remind me what a bad influence I was on her clean-cut husband.
I checked again for the train and then pulled the cigarette from behind my ear and lit it, despite a slight breeze, on the first try. The platform had become crowded at this point- a long line of frequently bobbing heads peaking out from behind the pillars sporadically hoping to sight an approaching train. A black man tossed a finished cigarette onto the tracks as I inhaled the stale tasting Marlboro Medium from the ancient pack that I had discovered next to the even staler cigars that I had been given a few months before. As I stood there I began to wonder if somehow my time wasn’t worth more than the money I would have spent to arrive home forty-five minutes earlier. I sucked that last filtery drag off the cigarette and promptly flicked it onto the tracks.
Experiencing a mild head rush, I leaned back against one of the pillars that felt smooth and lumpy after countless paintings. I shut my eyes for a moment and quickly awoke to the deep and serious voice of a policeman frowning at me and asking me to follow him.
“Excuse me Sir but what exactly did I do,” I mumbled with a slight ounce of surprise.
“Do you ride these trains often he said,” bald head glimmering and enormous black arms flexing.
“Sure, but what ….”
“Smoking is illegal anywhere within the subway system once you have paid your fare. You did pay your fare didn’t you,” he asked accusingly.
“Yes, but this station is outside and I honestly had now idea that you couldn’t smoke out here.”
Just then I remembered the black man down the platform who had flicked his cigarette onto the platform as I lit my own. I fought the urge to point this out hoping that he’d understand my honest ignorance of this particular law and let me off with a warning. Something about the way he was glaring at me should have told me differently.
“Can I have your license.” I noticed that the word “please” was never used.
I handed it to him and followed him down the platform towards a pay phone. He studied the license briefly and glanced up, a trace of a smile forming at the corners of his mouth.
“Have you ever committed a felony?” he mumbled.
“Do you have any outstanding arrests?”
He picked up the phone and dialed an 800 number and began to enter in the numbers he found on my on the license.
“It was an honest mistake, couldn’t you just give me a warning?”
He stared at me with creamy eyes that said hate and sternly responded “I brought you over here to give you ticket.” End of story, no negotiations.
At that moment I overcome with a profound feeling of hatred. I’ll admit to having a bit of a temper, but what I was feeling was so far beyond the anger that I felt when I’d slice a drive out of bounds or receive a late Friday assignment from my boss. It was a feeling that was accompanied by a deep sense of helplessness. I was being fucked by the system. A system that I naively assumed was fair. A system I rarely had to face.
I took a deep breath and leaned out towards the platform guessing that a train would surely come while he was writing me the ticket, forcing me to wait another twenty minutes for the scarce Sunday subway traffic. I paced back towards Sergeant Chet only to hear him blurt, “Are you a student or do you work?”
“I work,” I mumbled.
I told him the name of the large British conglomerate, now shortened to just a meaningless acronym.
“What does it stand for?”
“I think it once referred to Wire Print and Process or something like that,” I muttered hesitantly.
“Wire what and what?”
I could hear the train rumbling in the distance.
“I don’t know – here look at my corporate credit card if you want.”
I thrust him my shiny green AMEX corporate card and turned away to anxiously watch the train approach. I wanted him to die. I hated him at that time more than I had hated anyone for longer than I could remember me. He wanted me to pay because I was white. I was white and leaning up against a green golf bag looking peaceful, satisfied that I had just saved myself $35. He knew I was powerless, and he knew I knew it too.
The train screeched into the station just as he ripped the carbon from the others. I grabbed the license, credit card and ticket and rushed towards the train. I had been preparing some sort of closing comment, but I wisely reconsidered, calculating that it would most likely result in him giving me some other ludicrous ticket for mouthing off or something like that. I glared at him one last time as the doors closed behind me. I was so filled with an irrational rage that I could hardly think about anything except how much I would have wished to see Sgt. Chet fall onto the tracks where he would have been mercilessly split in half by the sharp heavy wheels of the A train. The people who had boarded the train with me stole inconspicuous glances, probably wondering what I had done to elicit the wrath of the enormous scowling officer of the law.
I unfolded the ticket only to discover a $50 box checked by an enthusiastic pen. As if I my rage couldn’t get any more severe, I noticed that he had had the option of making the ticket $25 instead of $50. My eyes darted around the train, each set of eyes becoming the enemy. “New York is a hateful place,” I concluded. I thought about the neatly manicured lawns and painfully homogenous Northeastern Ohio community I had just returned from, and how insular and shielded it had intentionally segregated it had grown to become. For a moment I understood why. Race could never be blamed for the problems that occurred in the town. It avoided assigning this kind of blame by eliminating the opportunity to do so. It was a town of white people who preferred not to be faced with diversity. My mind then raced to the image black man who had been smoking not twenty feet away from moments before my arrest.
The train pushed slowly through the ten or so stops in Brooklyn. For most of my five-year experience in New York I had been accustomed to not really noticing people as different in terms of skin color. In Brooklyn Hasidic Jews, whites, blacks, Asians, Arabs and Hispanics boarded the trains and walked the streets in droves. It was the consummate melting pot. No one really noticed you. Rarely did an eye pause to judge how you dressed, or the color of your skin. People were mostly just people. Or were they? Maybe I was full of shit. Maybe I was just as racist as the rest of the city.
I transferred to the 9 train at 59th street, only slightly less upset than I was after boarding the A train with the crumpled ticket in my hand. I was leaning my golf bag against the door of the train when I inadvertently swung my shoulder bag around as I prepared to balance against the door. An instant later I felt a yank on my arm and turned to see a teenage boy, Hispanic with one of those skinny beards shaved neatly into his face, glaring at me before yelling “Watch it you motherfucker!”
Apparently my bag had brushed his arm when I leaned back a moment ago. I was beyond words. Hate once again overwhelmed me. I returned to the stare honing in on his skinny teenage face of a 15 year-old kid who felt the need to stand his ground. I couldn’t speak. I just stared, long and hard.
“What you looking at punkass?” he grunted.
“I’m looking at you,” I said trying to sound like Charles Bronson.
“Well don’t unless you mean it.”
The train whistled through the next four stops. We exchanged a few more suspicious stares, but nothing more was said. At 96th street I grabbed my bag and stepped off the train. Before descending the stairs I turned and glared once more at the kid who was standing on the train watching me walk away. I stopped and aimed my glare hoping that it might hurt. He caught it, stepped off the train and pulled a knife from his pocket.
“Come get it you pussy. It’s here waiting for you chicken shit,” he swore fumbling with the penknife attached to his key-chain.
I stared back and continued down the stairs. He had successfully managed to scare a person twice his age and size. When I reached the sidewalk I glanced behind me to see if he had followed. He hadn’t. I felt consumed by a feeling that transcended words. I felt incapable of smiling, or forgetting. I was now a part of the problem. It wasn’t fair or rational, but that didn’t matter because it was real. I trudged home. An hour later than I would have had I taken a cab. The $35 I would have saved by taking the train had now turned into a $50 contribution to the city of New York. But more than that I had been reminded that racism was still alive and well in America. I would quickly forget the many of the little gestures and exchanges I would have every day in this multi-cultural city where I had chosen to live.
The black woman who would chase me down to return a dollar bill I had dropped on the sidewalk would become a fleeting memory. The Hispanic fruit vendor, who would throw in a few extra grapes, would suffer the same fate. But Sgt. Chet and that fateful day in the early summer of 1998 would remain forever imprinted on my memory. I reflect back on the glares from immigrant delivery boys who felt cheated by tips that they felt were insufficient. I remember feeling similarly angered when a 15% is deemed unacceptable when be handed a $12 brown paper bag of Chinese food.
In the end I will eventually forget that feeling of wanting to see a person die slow and painfully- after all it was only a $50 ticket. But these experiences do manage to challenge the way you often decide to see yourself. A few weeks later I stood behind a young black man on the subway who was flipping through the Post. The headline referred to allegations against New Jersey cops for pulling over an inequitable number young black drivers on a particular stretch of the New Jersey turnpike. The article argued that although this could be construed as an act of overt racism something like 70% of these searches uncovered drugs or unlicensed handguns. I though about how the story must have made this boy feel- helpless and angry. He was right to feel this way, after all black and white televisions have been obsolete for years.