Last night Rorie and I were on the subway coming back home. It was 1 or 2 in the morning. A homeless man was asleep in the subway car. He was black. I had seen a cop walking by while we were entering the station earlier. He was white. Far Rockaway is not a good area. For once, a cop made me feel safer.
As Rorie and I sat down, I noticed the cop was now patrolling the subway platform. He had the look of a cop looking to cause trouble. Except–because he’s a cop–it’s called “looking to serve justice.”
At first, he walked right by our car, not noticing the sleeping man. I know cops love to harass homeless people who use public transportation as hotel rooms and I always hate the cops for it because: these people are homeless; where the fuck are they going to go? There’s barely anyone on the subway at that hour and they’re not causing trouble.
I was going to wake the homeless guy up to warn him, but I figured the cop already walked past and didn’t notice him, so he was safe.
Then the cop came back and looked again; I saw that the cop saw him. I turned to Rorie: “Here he comes,” I said, and braced myself for the worst.
The cop came in, banged his flashlight on the wall above the seat, and the man shot up, startled, but sleepy. “You got ID?” The cop asked. Since 9/11, it’s illegal to be in New York city without ID. “Yes,” the man replied, and fished it out of his back pocket.
Then the cop said: “Where are you going?”
“I was just getting off,” the man replied.
“Where you getting off at? You were alseep.”
The man shrugged.
“What if I was also sleeping when the cop walked in?” I whispered to Rorie. She shrugged. I felt embarresed for the man at this point, and mad at the cop, and mad at myself for feeling relieved at his presence earlier. But I was able to hide at least from my own embarrassment by ignoring the situation. Living in the ghetto, I’ve found that if you don’t look people in the eye and you ignore them–both cops and gang members, who are similar in their desire to harass and intimidate–it makes it harder for them to berate you.
Then the cop told the man to get off the train with him. The man was in front of the cop and as he passed by, he shot me an annoyed and embarrassed look. Like he was saying sorry to me for my having to witness this. And his look made it impossible for me to seperate myself from the situation anymore. I could no longer ignore my guilt for not having woken the man up. I saw the ticket book in the cop’s hand as we walked by and I hoped that was the only weapon he’d use.
I watched as the man sat on a bench on the platform and as the cop stood before him writing a ticket. Then he told the man to leave and followed him to the stairs.
“What does the cop expect him to do–pay the ticket? He’s homeless!” My mind shot back to the signs you see posted in some subway cars, notifying passengers not to give money to panhandlers, but rather to alert MTA workers so they can provide them with “proper assistance.” On the sign is a photo of a homless man lying under newspapers and looking confused and sad while an MTA worker kneels above him with his hand out between them like Jesus offering bread. Except the MTA worker’s hand is empty and behind him, cropped out of the photo, is a cop with a baton and a fat ticket book instead.
As the man left the station, I thought, at least, the grossness of the event had ended. Then, I noticed the cop was coming back into the car. He walked over to the door sepearting our car from the one in front of ours and looked through the window in the door. I could tell, however, that this was a show–an transparent excuse to do the thing he did next–the thing which I was not expecting. I was expecting him to harass us next, because he must’ve heard me complaining, I thought.
No. What he did was far more infuriating: he said, “Have a safe night, folks.” And then waved us a friendly goodbye.
I wanted to punch him in the throat.
“Hey white friends,” was what he was really saying. “Isn’t it great that we ruined that nigger’s night? He won’t bother you with his benign sleeping presence any longer!”
“He really thought he was doing a good thing for us,” I said, still shocked. He assumed we approved of what he did and then implicated us in the act by acknowledging us after it was done. We’re now accomplaces in that immorality play rather than bystanders. What a fucking jerk. I already felt responsible for not waking the man up, then after it was over, I realized that even after the cop showed up and started to bother the man, I could’ve told the cop I saw him come on right before us and fall asleep. I could’ve even maybe shown him my grandfather’s card and asked him to cut the guy a break.
But no: I sat there trying to ignore what was in front of my face an injustice as plain as night and as simple as sleep. Just like a good little white, fearful citizen.
Then the cop validated my role in the sick play by acknowldging me as if I had called him to save me and he had served me well instead of annoyed the living shit out of me.
It’s a good thing I work with poor black kids for a living, otherwise I’d feel my karma ws severely in the red.