September 15, 2014


This weekend, for my birthday, I went to NYC alone.  No kids, and no husband because he was watching the kids.  There were a lot of wonderful things about the trip that I'll try to remember to post later (though, let's be honest, my track record is poor at best), but one thing in particular happened that was terrifying.

I was on the subway heading back to Penn Station to catch the train home.  A young man got on the train, dressed all in back, wearing a backpack, his face covered in a white mask.  He walked the length of the car and settled in front of the door that was directly across from where I was sitting.  He fidgeted and hopped around, like he was psyching himself up for something.  He kept bending over and adjusting his mask, hiding his face, and generally looking uncomfortable and antsy.  Then he would stand up, mask in place, and blatantly stare at people on the car.  A few times he shifted so he was looking out the door between trains.

Now, this is NYC, so the chance that he was just a nut job, or weirdo, or even street performer, were all real possibilities.  Also, it's NYC, so the chance that he was a terrorist was also felt like a real possibility.  It was 9/11 weekend.  I was absolutely terrified at the possibility that this man was psyching him up to do something terrible.  I assumed there was a bomb in the backpack.

No one the train was reacting much.  Most people didn't even acknowledge him.  A few looked at him, curious.  Only one other person seemed even slightly concerned.  I could feel panic rising in me, but there was nowhere to go, and no proof that this person meant anyone harm.  I fought to keep my breath steady, to appear unconcerned.  I refused to look at him except when he bent over to adjust his mask, because I was positioned in a way that he wasn't hiding his face from me when he did so and I wanted to be prepared just in case something needed reporting.  I quickly decided that if he were a nutjob, I did not want to draw attention to myself by staring.  If he were a street performer, I did not want to encourage him to repeat performances terrifying people by engaging.  Not looking at him also help keep me from having a panic attack.

At the next train stop, he went to the open door, crowed loudly as if in triumph, and exited the train.  The people getting on sort of laughed, in that way that people do when they're trying recover from something out of place and feel reconnected with the herd.  I have never been so relieved in my life.

I still don't what his purpose was on the train, or how common an occurrence something like that is in the city.  I've lived in a metropolis long enough to have experienced many random and odd things on the subway, but this was the first time one has made me scared for my life.  It is not something I hope to repeat.  It's also not something that will keep me from going back to NYC and enjoying myself, because everything we do has an inherent risk, and the chance of this happening again seems small.  I am thankful that I have some grasp of my own continuous risk assessment of the world, because I can easily see how this one incident would completely shut down a person.

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