There I was last week, all fresh and pressed and ready to teach my ASL course at CUNY when I stepped onto the 33rd Street PATH train at Journal Square and found a red, nylon, lunch bag — with a bottle of water hanging onto it from a mesh pouch on the outside — hiding under the train seat.
I immediately had a flashback to my childhood and wanting to help someone — and not to the unassailable advertising posted all over the PATH stations and television warning us that if you see an unattended bag, you need to immediately report it to the PATH authorities. Since I had entered the first car, the engineer exited her locked control booth for a shift change, and I told her I found a bag on the floor.
She ignored me and walked off the train.
I picked up the bag and followed her out to the platform and spoke in a louder voice that someone had lost their bag in the train. She finally stopped and looked at me and then asked the rapidly approaching PAPD officer if that was the bag in question.
The PAPD officer had a passenger walking with him and she was pointing to the red bag I now had in my hand.
The PAPD officer gave me a filthy look and told me to drop the bag.
I then had a second flashback to the PATH advertising. I suppose “reporting” an abandoned bag didn’t mean picking it up and taking it to an official. It meant leaving the bag in place and letting the authorities deal with the bag in situ.
As ordered, I dropped the bag on the platform and the officer gave me another exasperated look. I apologized and sheepishly went into the PATH car and took a seat.
Lots of PAPD officers and PATH staff came onto the platform. Nobody in the train knew what was happening on the platform — except me — they only knew the train was not leaving the station.
The PAPD officer who told me to drop the bag came into the car and told us we all had to leave the car. He looked right at me and gave me another grimace. I nodded and quickly made my way to the next car.
We sat for another 10 minutes before our train was finally allowed to leave.
As the train chugged its way to the Grove Street station, I realized I was likely lucky, in one way, that I moved the bag to the platform — because that meant the train could leave and I’d be on time for teaching. On the other hand — that I still have — by picking up that suspicious lunch bag, I could have very well blown off my left arm, and the PATH train around me, and never been able to teach ASL again.
I consider myself fortunate and dumb — and I should have known much better. My instinct was to help, not to protect a possible crime scene, and I blame that urge on my Nebraska upbringing where we are raised from the cradle to first be helpful and caring and attentive to strangers — and I realize those keen Midwestern values could just as easily get you killed in Jersey City on your way to teach in New York.