First As Farce, Then As Tragedy

While the American presidential election debates get more academic with both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney conjuring fantastic dreams of turning the economy around, the iPhone snatchers have been keeping the NYC subway busy. The relation between the presidential promises and snatching in the subway is anyone’s guess!

It was April, 2012. We had been traveling in a late-night A train, which runs local after eleven pm, to Bed-Sty. While we sat at the corner of an almost empty train, we watched a group of teenagers, presumably weekend revelers, having fun. We had not noticed that they were pointing to a man who had been at the center of their raucous laughter even before we boarded the train. The man appeared to be under the influence of either alcohol or some other substance. He had an earphone on and his iPhone gradually slipped off his hands. All the while he slept heavily and did not appear to be aware that his phone had fallen on the floor.

One young man from the group ventured close to the sleeping man and tapped him on the shoulder. The man did not seem to even know what was happening to him. The young man went back and sat on one of the empty seats. As the sleeping man swayed heavily, the youngsters broke out into an uproarious laughter. We, too, joined in the innocent giggle that created a strange feeling of camaraderie among the late-night commuters.

As the train approached the Lafayette station, the adventurous young man stepped close to the sleeping man one more time. He removed his ear-phone but the man seemed to be lost in his reveries. To the astonishment of the commuters, the young man grabbed the ear-phone and coolly picked up the iPhone from the floor and dashed out. My fellow-travelers, especially the teenagers, broke into a laughter, again. As the young man made off with the iPhone, I could not but think of the episode as a farce. I kept thinking of the sheer absurdity of it all.

18 Oct, 2012: It was around 2.00am. After picking up a couple of photo-cards from the CVS on 34th St, I boarded the 6 train from 33rd St to get off at Union Square. At 28th street, two men in their 30s got into the same compartment and sat across my seat. From their casual exchanges, I could soon figure out that they were not acquainted. As the gates slammed shut, one of the men lit a half-smoked cigarette, which was not an unusual occurrence as I had previously seen on a couple of occasions people smoking in late-night trains. After a couple of puffs, he threw the cigarette near the corner seat next to the exit door.

The train approached the 23rd station. The man had already stood up from his seat and was standing near the gate. We were all distracted momentarily by the still-burning cigarette underneath the seat next to the door. There was a young lady sitting on that seat with the iPhone causally placed on her lap. Once the doors opened, the man grabbed the woman’s phone in a flash and started sprinting. Even before we could recover, we saw the young woman running hard, trying desperately to catch up with him. She managed to get hold of him near the exit of the station. He pushed her to the platform and jumped the turnstile.

I could feel a sense of shock among the fellow commuters. It was becoming impossible to stay put inside the cabin. The April 2012 episode flashed through my mind. The farcical nature of the previous incident accentuated a sense of tragedy at the young woman’s loss. I couldn’t sit idle in the train anymore. Fortunately, someone had held the doors of the train apart. I rushed out of the turnstiles and climbed up the steps hoping I could be of some help to the woman. I overheard that a couple of others had already been chasing the man. To my utter surprise, I didn’t find a trace of the man nor of the woman. As if, it had never happened in the first place.

Next day, like every other day, I took the A train from Bed-Sty to West 4 to get to NYU. All the while I had been thinking of the tragedy of the previous night. As I stepped out of West 4, the NYPD personnel handed me an information brochure, ‘Defeat a thief…Safe riding tips’. One of the tips read: ‘Be alert for staged distractions’.

As I read the tips, the questions that kept coming to my mind: Is commuter safety merely the responsibility of individual commuters? Can the next President of the United States make fundamental systemic changes so that such crimes stop for good?

Perhaps, these are naive and banal questions!

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