NEW JERSEY — I went out with my girlfriend a few nights ago to have a long a leisurely dinner with two of our friends in the Village. We met up with them a little late, but there were no hard feelings; despite the delay, we were in high sprits and happy to see each other. We asked each other how we had been, got caught up on the details of mutual friends’ lives, and told a few satisfying stories over some good Japanese food and beer. After dinner, we walked with them to the West 4th Street stop hugged and kissed our goodbyes, and walked up two blocks to the PATH station at 9th St. and Sixth Ave. As we had inadvertently learned on our inbound journey, the PATH train was running on a holiday schedule because of President’s Day, so we got settled in for a longer than normal wait. My girlfriend and I were talking about who we would like to set up with one of our good friends in DC, half-heartedly attempted to clarify some of the murky points of Brown vs. Board of Education decision in light of the contours of the Fourteenth Amendment, and we good-naturedly complained about how stuffed we were from dinner. We slowly made our way from the station entrance and stood at the end of the platform; behavior learned from anticipating how to board the train in order to exit the car at our station and be closest to the stairs leading up to the street. We did not have to wait long; a few minutes later, the train arrived, sporting the two-tone blue and orange headlights signifying that it would stop in Hoboken that night as well, before continuing on to Journal Square to start its return to New York. We would be home in 20 minutes, not too bad as far as our trip was concerned but still too late to catch the beginning of a show we wanted to see that started at 9 PM.
The train was packed with passengers, so we entered the first car of the train hoping to get seats as the front cars usually tend to be less crowded. Despite our best efforts, no seats were to be found on the train so we ended up standing close to the door, at the end of a row of seats in the first car. W both clasped a pole for balance and carried on our conversation, both in English and in Persian. I held the pole with my right hand, and placed my left in my coat pocket to keep warm. I was looking forward to getting home and unwinding a bit before going to bed.
We had been on the train no longer than 5 minutes when a White woman standing next to me barely turned around and haughtily told me, as headmistress might bark at an unruly pupil, that if I turned and faced the window of the train that I would not keep bumping her. Having not touched her at all, I was confused as to who this woman was speaking to in such a manner, turning my head full around and seeing that there was no other passenger within a foot and a half radius of her. I rolled my eyes and paid no mind; after 7 years of riding the NYC subway and PATH, I knew crazy people often ride the train and it’s best to leave them be. Moments of potential conflict patiently accompany us everywhere we go, but their actualization is entirely dependent on how we choose to conduct ourselves. I calmly and cordially told the woman I hadn’t touched her to which she shook her maroon-bereted head tersely, still refusing to turn around and interact with me face to face. This passive-aggressive diffidence on her part infuriated me, but I saw the futility of trying to talk to someone so socially pathological and rude.
Instead, I chose to refrain from giving the crazy woman some choice words and ignore her. I continued my conversation with my girlfriend, now entirely in Persian because I wanted to freely express to her how incredibly annoying I found certain White people to be owing to this innate sense of social entitlement. It is a symptom of privilege and a sense of social superiority that somehow allows a person to speak as though their preferences are legally binding. I find it strange that one should be so sensitive about a sense of personal space on mass transit, when the train is hurtling along at upwards of 40 miles per hour over swerving and rickety tracks. It is inevitable to brush against a passenger standing in your immediate vicinity (Black, White, rich, homeless, etc.) when a 30 year old train executes a hairpin turn in a narrow tunnel at high speed. I spoke, in Persian still, of how someone needing so much personal space had no business using mass transit and should forego buying anymore frizzy maroon berets to purchase a car, where she could estrange herself from other suburban commuters and avoid the injustice of standing on the train. Whatever. It was over — the woman was crazy, case closed. My girlfriend and I shrugged and moved on to other topics.
A few minutes after my exchange with bereted woman, still traversing the Hudson River, the conductor of the train approached me from the rear of the car and told me in no uncertain terms to move over to my right, in essence acting as the woman’s security detail. Potential conflict reared its ugly head, anxious to materialize out of thin air. I complied with the conductor’s instructions without argument, but inside I seethed. I am an Iranian man in this dystopian post-Sept 11 society-what can I do? This was a trap, similar to going through airport security. Since 9-11, I have flown about 20 times and I have been ‘randomly selected’ for additional security screening 9 times. I have been interviewed and privately searched; I have kept all of the special stickers intact that they slap on your passport and boarding passes when they want to screen you further. And if you get upset at being treated like shit, then you present the authorities with probable cause to take ‘additional security measures.’ I summoned those lessons learned into that moment on the train.
If I raised my voice to confront the conductor, I knew I would lose the war of perception — I would be considered to be overly aggressive, or perhaps to be jeopardizing the safety of PATH passengers-not defending my civil rights. I noted the looks of alarm and disapproval from several passengers who were gawking at me at this point. I had become the bad guy, the menacing foreigner who had spoken a foreign Middle Eastern language while standing too close to a White woman. My girlfriend was looking at the conductor as he actually apologized to the woman for the inconvenience of standing next to me, touching the brim of his hat like a charming sea admiral as me made his way back over to the end of the car. Problem solved–chivalry is alive and well in New Jersey. Samira wasn’t having it and spoke up. “He didn’t do anything wrong you know” she said, “he was just standing here.” To which the conductor replied, “There is plenty of room, no need to stand there so I asked him to move, that’s all.” This exchange drew the attention of about 10 more onlookers from our end of the car, curious at the scene that was unfolding before them.
Samira raised her voice and persisted. She was good at this sort of thing, upping the ante and grabbing more attention — it leaves no doubt as to what the issue was about, she told me later. “This doesn’t make sense-he wasn’t doing anything; we were just talking, so I don’t understand why he has to move. Why did you ask him to move? For what reason?” The conductor’s expression changed from self-satisfaction to one of hostile condescension. “Because I asked him. Ok? It’s no big deal. I just asked him to move. There is all that room, so he don’t need to stand so close.”
Samira’s voice reached higher decibels. “I don’t understand why you won’t give a reason for why you asked him to move-he wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was standing here, we were talking. You shouldn’t ask people to move without a reason.” The conductor, pressured by Samira, now raised his voice as well. “Because I asked him- I asked him to. He moved because I asked him. There is no reason for him to have to stand there” looking pointedly at the White woman, “when there is all that room over there” jerking his gaze back toward Samira. One of the passengers nodded her head in support of the conductor’s response.
The train was winding into the Hoboken station and we just looked at each other. “This is bullshit” I said. Samira shook her head angrily. “I want to get his badge number and follow up with this.” The doors finally opened at Hoboken. I took a page out of Samira’s book and said too loudly, to attract attention: “Let’s switch cars here: I don’t want to ride in a car where I am being racially profiled because some crazy White woman is uncomfortable standing next to me. This is absolute bullshit.”
We stepped outside the car and started walking up to find a car farther down from the one we were riding in. Samira stopped and said, “I don’t just want to walk away from this — I want his badge number because this is ridiculous. I feel humiliated and we didn’t do anything.” The conductor was monitoring our departure, following us by passing through the cars and continuing to glare at us. Samira glared back, and then walked back into the train. “Sir, I want you to give me your badge number.”
“Give you my badge number, for what? Look, woman… ”
The word hung in the air, attached to a series of unspoken but clearly understood words following it. Look you crazy bitch, stop acting crazy and shut up. Stop making a fuss about things you can’t understand-this is man’s work, and I’m handling this situation like a man..
Samira exploded. “Woman? Don’t call me woman. Give me your goddamn badge number.”
“What do you want me to call you, girl?”
At this point, I stepped in. “Sir, you have no right to speak this way, you are acting very unprofessional. She asked you a reasonable question, all you need to give is a reasonable answer. If you can’t do that, we have nothing left to say to you and we aren’t interested in listening to you.” All of this, from our boarding the train to that moment, had taken about twelve minutes. I told Samira that we should leave and that he was not a person we needed to talk to anymore. He had crossed several lines already, but apparently wasn’t finished doing that for the night.
Perhaps regaining his sense of authority as conductor of the train, he told us to get off the train. He began shouting at us, blocking the entrance to the train and leering at us like some drunk in a barfight. “Why don’t you get the hell out of here — go on, get lost.” I turned around and faced him once more. “Sir, you have no right to speak or behave this way — you are being incredibly unprofessional and — ”
“What are you gonna do? You ain’t doin’ nuthin’. So go on, get the hell outta here… ”
“Give us your badge number — ”
“Shut up! You ain’t doin’ nuthin’… ”
At this point, Samira and I walked away furiously, determined to get out of there and file a complaint at that very moment. I was angry and humiliated, and I wanted noting more than to confront the conductor and hold him accountable for his actions. Why was he treating me like this? We left the platform and found a passenger assistance line upstairs by the turnstiles. My mind raced as I gripped Samira’s hand and walked away. What a awful ending to an otherwise-great night.
Transgressions happen all the time. One moment, you are engrossed in what you are doing, perhaps carrying a conversation with a friend while walking by the street, and a passerby rudely shoulders through the two of you as if you weren’t there. Or you might be standing in line, and all of a sudden someone much larger than you muscles their way in front of you. All of this often occurs in a matter of seconds, leaving one little time to decide how to respond in kind. Still, responses matter; they can determine whether one successfully defuses a potential crisis or ends up getting punched in the face. My adrenaline had prepared me to respond physically if necessary, and I was feeling very angry and embarrassed, but I believed I had acted appropriately. I had defied people’s stereotypes by refraining from using profanity, keeping my voice calm and removing myself from a situation in which the tension was escalating. I put the onus of maintaining decency and professionalism on the conductor, and he had failed that challenge miserably and very publicly.
What angered me most was the abuse of power — the exercise of authority without transparency or just cause. He asked me to move, and I did. All I wanted in kind was an explanation as to why-why I had to move, seeing that I was minding my own business, engaged in conversation with my girlfriend, holding the pole with one and hand keeping the other in my coat pocket. If I have to move, at least give me a reasonable answer as to why. When he couldn’t supply a reasonable response, it became obvious he had no valid reason for asking me to move in the first place, and instead became angry that we challenged his judgment. I was angry that all of this had happened because some passive-aggressive racist White woman did not feel comfortable standing next to me and Samira. I was angry because we now have this goddamn security culture that has turned everything upside down and completely disempowers people who resemble me and have a certain cultural or religious heritage. It allows sick and entitled people, like the woman on the train, to unfairly provoke and get away with racism, while someone like me has to be removed from the train, nevermind the fact that I have served as an elementary school teacher, and am currently a doctoral student at a well-regarded graduate school. In the end, I was less of a threat to public safety on that train than that woman’s ridiculous beret.
Nowadays, if a Middle Eastern man challenges authority, be it with the police, in an airport, or on a train, there is no limit as to what can happen. He is, by virtue of appearance, a potential terrorist and that gives the state, the courts, and media the justification it needs to imprison, violate legal rights, and even torture. And no one gives a shit, because Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans don’t have powerful advocacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League or the NAACP. I was angry because I had momentarily felt afraid to voice a challenge to the injustice being perpetuated against me for fear of being arrested on a powerhungry conductor’s whim. I felt I was powerless in my own country–a nauseating feeling. I was angry because I knew had a different appearance, I would have been treated differently. Why did the conductor, a Black man, intervene on behalf of the White passenger and later apologize to her? What was the meaning behind the apology? Sorry you had to stand next to that dirty A-rab terrorist, ma’am. Did that woman and I not pay the same fare? Do I not have the same rights as anyone else, and have the freedom to stand where I choose so long as I do not physically bother anyone else? If she was so aggravated at having to stand by us, why didn’t he ask her to move?
Samira and I exited through the turnstiles. As soon as I picked up the phone, I turned to see that the conductor had stealthily followed us up from the platform. For a second, I thought he was going to hop over the turnstile and physically confront us. I was more than prepared to deal with that if it happened, but I was hoping to capture an audio account of the altercation on the passenger assistance line. I fumbled with the phone; it had some problem connecting at first. “Oh you want to make a complaint against me? I don’t care, I don’t care — my supervisor don’t care either. She gonna back me up, she gonna know how you were pushing and shoving me, the passengers… ” I stared at him now in amazement as he rambled on incoherently, alternately shouting and pointing his finger at us. He knew he had screwed up, I thought, that is why he came up here, trying to intimidate us, and make up some weak alibi about how I was ‘pushing and shoving other passengers’… He came closer, until he was close enough grab the phone from his side of the turnstile. The train to Journal Square sounded a departing announcement, and he turned around and descended back down to the platform to get back on the train. He turned around and jabbed his finger in our direction once more. “You can’t do nuthin’… ”
Here’s the thing: I am doing something. I am sending this to everyone I know, and will do something until Samira and I get an official apology from PATH and/or the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. You can do something too — you can read this, and pass it along to people that you know so that next time some racist tries to falsely accuse someone innocent of something they did not do, you can help freeze them in their tracks by saying something and calling attention to the situation. I am not going to play along and be complicit in other people’s bigotry, and I am not going to pretend like this isn’t a big deal. Anyone else who cares about civil rights and protection under the law shouldn’t play along or pretend that this is all ok either.