The following occurred yesterday (the morning of July 21, 2005). It happened before I knew about the second round of London bombings and well before I read about New York’s decision regarding its subways.
I started a new job this week. Oh joy, oh thrill, oh giddy delight. In some ways, it’s like the first day of school all over again. New names to attach to new faces, confusing hallways that lead to unfamiliar rooms, office supplies to break in and new routines to develop and appreciate.
When they showed me exactly where I’d be working, I took in the expansive white space and felt surprise mingle with inspiration. The area I was surveying was easily twice the size of my old office; the only object taking up room was the PC. In a matter of seconds, I filled in the entire empty with picture frames, calendar, vase, enormous coffee mug…I couldn’t wait. This would be where I’d be spending the majority of my waking hours from now on; I wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing.
Later on that evening, I made a list, checked it twice; I went around my apartment to fill an old Nordie’s bag with stuff naughty (read: junk food and ritter sport) and nice. Satisfied, I went to bed.
The next morning, I re-examined the bag of random tchotchkes and supplies I had amassed the night before for my new second home. Though it’s my preferred method of packing things, I wondered if the simple shopping bag was really a wise choice. I was tired, and the idea of carrying it did not appeal. I suddenly yearned for something mobile, like my carry-on bag. I settled for a duffle bag that I could drag, thanks to two very helpful wheels…perfect. No strain on my shoulder or wrist, no possibility of anything breaking. Off I went to work.
Once I was outside, I felt odd schlepping my stuff down the street but I quickly squashed any self-consciousness that the sound of the wheels or the sight of me were generating. People took the metro all the time to the airport. That’s probably what strangers were thinking if they saw me. Of course.
A block-and-a-half later, I alighted from the escalator which descends into the metro and noticed that people were looking at me in a less than friendly way. The thwack, thwack, THWACK of my wheels on the odd old terra-cotta tile that fills all stations was horrid; it ricocheted off the ceiling and surrounded me. I cringed. Ick, I’d be giving me dirty looks, too. I was a public nuisance.
Amid the racket, I felt that unnerving tingle one experiences when being followed. I shook my head impatiently at my inaccurate spider sense. “Get over yourself. It’s rush hour. Of COURSE people are following you, they have to get to work and they’re right behind you!”
Down I went to the station platform, where it was exceptionally muggy. I was unexpectedly grateful for the free tabloid that had been handed to me before I hit the metro escalators. I folded it and began fanning myself furiously. What a day to wear a boucle suit. Sure, it had a rather short skirt but it was still uncomfortably warm. Yay for dress codes and summer. I grimaced as I worried about melting before I even got to work. Someone was watching me imitate air conditioning. I turned surreptitiously and did a ridiculously awkward double take as I noticed the piercing blue eyes of someone who was armed. Of course. We're on orange alert when it comes to transportation. The man with the gun slowly smiled at me as I hastily looked away.
More people joined us on the platform, and I moved away, further down the line. How silly of me to hang out near the bottom of the escalator— of course it was going to get crowded. I’ve been vaguely paranoid ever since I heard about that woman who was shoved in front of a subway in nyc. I didn’t like how close I was to the edge.
Giving up on feeling comfortable, I opened up the tabloid to a random page near the middle. Something about London and the attacks…wait. Was someone behind me gawking at me, AGAIN? For some reason, I felt unease. This time, I was determined to turn around smoothly. There was no one. I was slowly going mad. I started fanning myself again, as if cooler air would protect my fleeting sanity. I turned towards the opposite direction to check the status of the next Orange line train on the digital sign, but I never read it.
“How are you today?”
It was the police officer.
“I’m…fine." Dear Lord, what was he doing here? How did he seemingly materialize from out of the humidity?
“Where are you off to?”
“Where do you work?”
I suddenly wished I had something with me that proved my destination, though I immediately recoiled internally that I had even conceived such a thought. This was starting to get to me and to a few others nearby, judging from the looks on their faces. I answered and he narrowed his eyes.
“You’re not nervous about anything, are you?”, he said, referring to my frequent self-fanning.
Oh gawd. Why. WHY did he have to go there? I’d been stifling the chip on my shoulder, the paranoia, and the fear this whole time. I replied negatively and mentioned that it’s the middle of summer. He gave me what “Maisnon” calls the elevator look before settling on my feet. Except it wasn’t my ballet-inspired flats he was taking in…it was my bag.
I can’t explain the maelstrom I immediately felt within…rage, hurt, confusion…ultimately resignation.
“Would you like me to open my bag?” I blurted out.
“You’re welcome to go through it.”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary right now…”
It didn’t matter, though. Everything had gone pear-shaped. I was suddenly aware of dozens of eyes staring and glaring my way. I was miserable. I wanted to say something or somehow prove that I was just like them, a commuter who was cranky for the next train, that I was just moving into my new office at work…
I knew there was nothing I could say or do.
Mercifully, the train arrived a minute later and I managed to snag a seat. I tried to focus on the paper, but it was no use. I was still getting crossly-examined by suspicious metro-takers. I wanted to laugh a brittle, bitter laugh when I thought to myself, “I’ll take my jacket off and open the bag to put it in and…and…and then they’ll see it’s just junk, that there’s nothing crazy in there.” What on earth was I thinking? Could I really combat the stone-cold resentment and paranoia that each of them was projecting, by offering up my belongings as proof that I meant no harm? I didn’t move. I couldn’t.
When my stop came, I took my baggage with me. A few moments later, I noticed my reflection in the mirrored double doors of my new building. I looked defeated. In my first meeting, I said nothing. The entire incident played over and over again on a dreadful loop in my mind. How could I have been so stupid? Why did I take a bag on the metro? Misery begat a subdued anger: why shouldn’t I be able to schlep a bag somewhere? I didn’t do a damned thing wrong. This was insanely unfair. And frustrating. How am I supposed to get anything done if I can't carry something? I don’t go anywhere without my laptop, so at a minimum, I’m always going to be toting the sleek black messenger bag which houses THAT.
My head was spinning at this point, the questions my brain was posing to no one multiplied faster than brooms in Fantasia. Do they really think terrorists wear boucle, camellia pins and pleated skirts? What do I have to wear so that I can just blend in and be treated/ignored like everyone else? Would it ever be okay to be brown? Should I have worn the prominent gold cross that has graced my neck since I was a year old to claim Christianity as a mantle of “not me!”? Do I look like a muslim? Would a female suicide bomber show this much leg? I hated the way I was starting to think. I hated that I had no answers. All I was sure of was a sucky sort of resignation that this was now my world, and I’d have to consciously battle the worst of me so that I didn’t turn into someone who was hateful and ignorant.
At the end of my day, I walked out of work. I had no baggage. My rolling bag was tucked under my desk. I couldn’t go through all of that again, I just couldnt. Wouldn’t. Shouldn’t. Still, I have the sinking feeling I will. I can walk around with my birth certificate laminated and hanging from a lanyard around my neck, I can wave a small American flag wherever I go, I can plead with people to not assume the worst about me but it’s no use.
After the Iran hostage crisis, I was hurriedly pulled inside our home in the bay area, when my mother heard people screaming, “Go back to Iran” at bewildered, four-year old me, right before they threw a volley of rotten eggs. That was the end of my playing outside.
After 9-11, I looked Indian enough to escape scrutiny and inconvenience. It was Arabs who were evil. Aside from never having a peaceful experience at Airport security, I was relatively unaffected, in a public sense.
Now it’s 2005 and the hateful assholes who blew up 56 people in London are brown. They look like me. They look Indian. Not Arab, not turbaned, not “eastern”, no. They might as well have been wearing cursed Abercrombie and Fitch while on those surveillance tapes. They misguidedly think they are on their way to paradise and free virgins, while leaving those of us who resemble them in a fresh new hell where everyone’s fucked.
My sister (active duty- Air Force) can get sent to the middle east for the second time in as many years, she can give up her life for this ineffective, shortsighted, poorly-executed and shittily-planned war on terror…and it doesn’t matter. As long as deluded South Asian fundamentalists whore themselves out for their terrorist pimps, once she’s out of her BDUs, she’s an evil slut, too. If that patriotic sibling of mine is misjudged and profiled, what hope is there for civilian me? I can’t do anything, except cynically wait until the next tragedy occurs, and we have a new villain who doesn’t look like me to vilify and fear.
addendum: someone who commented mentioned that there were things i could do besides "cynically wait until the next" villain replaced our current one (aka the one whom i look like)...working against ignorance and fending off threats to our civil liberties IS important, but i'm not going to "do" that.
you see, i already have. i don't expect the readers of my blog to know this, but i've spent the vast majority of my adult life working for non-profits; the last one i worked for did exactly what you recommend. it's emotionally exhausting to fight the good fight and after almost a decade of doing so, i'm tired. i'm also broke, since i can't defer $65,000 in student loans any longer.
this is the dirty little secret of growing old-- whether or not I choose to accept it, like my legendary metabolism, the flame within burns slower. mundane obligations eclipse my heart's whims. though i was once a "unique", fiery, passionate activist, i woke up one day and found that i was 30.
like all of you, i have bills to pay, but unlike me at 27, i can't tend bar all night long to supplement the pittance that non-profits pay, like i used to, when i'd go to bed gnashing my teeth over injustice, dream of goodness triumphing over evil and then wake up four hours later to charge out my front door, on my way to battle those who suck.
it's lame, but it's true. i've made my peace with it b/c i still agitate, but i do it differently than i used to-- i blog. my old non-profit worked to increase political awareness; back then, even at my most productive, i didn't influence, affect or inform a fraction of those whom i have the privilege of speaking to now. my loans get paid and i still have somewhere to channel my righteous indignation. the system works.