When the Right Thing To Do Is…Well, what *is* the right thing to do?

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I was on the Q train recently, coming home from Manhattan. It was approaching rush hour, and the train was full, but not as packed as it often gets, when you find yourself sardined against your neighbor’s armpit, using them to hold you up because your hand won’t reach a rail. You know what I’m talking about, straphangers.

For the record: I hate the term “straphangers.” There haven’t been actual straps in the subway since I moved to New York in 1990 (and according to this Quora answer, which I consider accurate since it was written by a fellow with a masters in urban and regional planning from Columbia, they were replaced in the the mid-70s). Plus, it just sounds kind of nasty, like something you’d never want to be because eew, straphangers…which I have to say feels true a lot of the time. New Yorkers all have this feeling that the subways have been getting worse in recent years — slower, less reliable — and the evidence of how often trains break down or have delays backs that up, apparently. As the system deteriorates, the city just doesn’t have enough money to maintain it. But all in all, it’s our sometimes crappy system, and it’s still mostly functional 24 hours a day seven days a week, and I’m happy that I live in a city where public transportation is a major part of our lifestyle – even if it (the subway system – but okay, also the lifestyle) is far from perfect.

Anyway, on this particular day, I’d just gotten on the train, I was tired and looking for a seat, when a woman standing near me said, “Did you see what happened with that bag?”

I looked at where she was pointing, toward a paper Trader Joe’s bag that was sitting on the floor a few feet away.

“No,” I replied.

“Some guy just left it there and ran off the train.”

“It’s just garbage,” offered a man standing next to the bag.

I walked over to look in the bag. Indeed, there just appeared to be an open box of crackers and some other half-used food product and its accompanying trash. But it was enough stuff that I couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the bag. There could have been something hidden underneath all that.

“He kind of looked around and then ran off the train,” said the woman. “It was weird.”

“Well, we should tell someone,” I said.

You get that refrain drummed into you here, and maybe these days in any big city: see something, say something. Over the loudspeaker in every subway station and train car, you’ll be told, “If you see a suspicious package on the platform or train…” and then the rest is usually so garbled as to be unhear-able, or I’ve already tuned it out. But the gist is, you report it, and this was clearly one of those situations.

I realized we were in the front car of the train, so I said to the woman, “I think the conductor is right here,” and started walking it that direction. The woman started walking with me, and as we pushed our way through people, she was walking pretty fast, and ended up in front of me. I wondered, Is she just trying to get as far away from the bag as possible? I suppose the fact that that thought had occurred to me might’ve made it seem like maybe I was doing the same. But I’d announced my intention was to go tell someone, and it wasn’t like we would be able to escape whatever was going to happen as long as we were on the same train car — I’d already thought that one through too. It seemed far more likely that some mildly disturbed or forgetful or inconsiderate person had left a paper Trader Joe’s bag of junk on the train than that they’d put a bomb in one, but the headlines and action movie explosions flashed through my head nonetheless, as these things do. We see the world in narrative, and that’s certainly the narrative that the person writing this script would have written, at least if they wanted it to have any hope of getting made.

We got to the front of the train around when it arrived at the next stop. I could kind of see the conductor through the window in his little capsule, but it looked like that little window didn’t open. The easiest way to talk to the him seemed to be to just get off the train. So I got off. The woman followed.

“Somebody left a paper Trader Joe’s bag on that car,” I said, pointing. “It just looked like there was food and junk in it, but she thought he was acting weird when he got off…” I indicated the woman who’d accompanied me. She nodded.

“Uh huh, okay,” said the conductor. He said something to a guy who was with him, and that guy headed back toward the train car. “I’ll have him go check it out. He’s a trainee, so I can’t leave him alone in here. But thank you, thank you for letting me know.”

And then he closed the window, and the doors, and pulled the train out of the station, leaving us behind. Which wasn’t what I’d expected him to do. I’d expected him to wait, have the other guy check it out, and then, once he’d made sure everything was okay, then go to the next station. That seemed like the protocol to me, if you really thought there might be something in that bag. But on the other hand, the conductor had probably seen this a million times: a couple of paranoid New Yorkers who freaked out over something entirely inconsequential – and then he got flack for holding up train service. And I’d been that other passenger way more often, the incredibly annoyed one having to wait while my train sat on the tracks, due to “an investigation.” Still, again, my brain went to the visual image of the train blowing up in the tunnel — both from inside and outside the train, since my imagination is comprehensive like that, and which angle you pick depends on whose story you’re telling at that point. And I also pictured everything being fine…with me now having to wait for another train.

“Thanks for reporting it,” said the other woman, who seemed pleased with how everything had gone down. “It really did seem weird.”

“Sure,” I said, “I’m glad we did.”

Only I wasn’t entirely glad, because I suddenly felt bad that I hadn’t gotten back on the train. I could have. There was a moment there before the doors closed when I had been able to make that choice, but I didn’t. And while I hadn’t gotten off because I was trying to save my own skin, once I was off, and had a split second to decide whether or not to get back on, the thought did pass through my mind that it was better not to be on that train. It’s not like there was anything else I could have done at that point to help if there was a bomb in that bag. The conductor made a choice, and I made a choice. And maybe his choice could have turned out to be stupid if things had gone differently, and my choice would have turned out to be smart. But instead, it just felt small and cowardly. It kind of still does.

As I’ve written about before, sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to do in this city. After 9-11, in particular, a lot of us had hard time trying to figure out how we were supposed to go on with our daily lives. Many people I knew talked seriously about moving. In some ways, at the time, it seemed like a sensible thing to do. I just decided that I wasn’t going to live like that: in fear. And while that day in some ways seems like it’s in the distant past, now, more than ever, I think we’re living in an era where way too many people are choosing to make their day-to-day decisions out of fear — of terrorism and violence, of losing what little they have, or just of a changing world that they don’t completely understand and in which they don’t know where exactly they belong.

I don’t ever want to be one of them. I hope I’m not. Because as stupid as it is to obsess about whether you did the right thing when you found an abandoned bag on the Q train…it kind of matters. Now more than ever, it’s important to be brave. We might not all be Emma Gonzales, or Danica Roem (although I hope more and more of us continue to stand up and do what they’re doing), but we all have to decide the type of world we want to live in every day. 

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