If You See Something, Say Something
“Hey, man, can I see your book?” I’m sitting in the Amtrak station in Harrisburg, PA waiting for the train to New York. I look up and see an African-American guy with a broad smiley face, his head covered by white bandana. “Sure,” I reply. I’m not sure if it’s the title that caught his eye or something else. “It’s just a fantasy novel,” I say. “Pretty light stuff.” He picks up the book and holds it up to eye level, examining its thickness. He opens the back cover. “Aw, man, that’s a lotta pages,” he says. “Yeah, I guess,” I reply, not sure what else to say.
“I’m a writer, you know,” he says proudly. “Oh yeah? What do you write?” He turns toward me more deliberately, and begins, “I write mainly urban fiction. I’m writing the third book in my trilogy.”
“I don’t know much about urban fiction,” I respond sheepishly. “Aw, well, it’s mainly about the black experience of the city, you know… Most of it’s about crime and drugs and clashes with police and the corruption of people in power…. Actually, to be honest, most of the urban fiction out there is sex stories with a bit of crime thrown in to add a bit of flavour, you know…”
“Ah, I see. So what’s your book about? “Well, mine’s got some of all that, but there’s a bit of a twist, you know… It’s sort of a philosophical flip on the usual story… and it’s got some religious undertones in it that most urban fiction doesn’t have.” “Sounds pretty cool,” I say. “Tell me more.” “Well, I imagine judgment day and God’s sortin’ stuff out, you know, but instead of the usual good guys bein’ on top, you know the police and the authorities and what not, it’s the people you assume are the bad guys, the criminals, the drug dealers, the gang bangers… they’re the ones that win and end up on top. So, you know, it’s like a philosophical flip upside down.”
“That sounds pretty cool,” I say. “Kind of like the first are last and the last are first.”
“I like that.”
“So, did you grow up in the city?” I ask. “Yeah, born and raised in Harrisburg. I’m just heading to Lancaster to meet up with my brother… He just got out of the army… Comin’ up from Atlanta… But I’m pretty tired, you know…Just worked the night shift and I ain’t had no sleep. “Where do you work?” I ask. “Just the grocery store.” “You must be pretty tired,” I say. “Yeah, man… Anyway, I’m goin’ outside to have a cigarette… Been nice talkin’ to you man.” “Yeah, you, too,” I say. “All the best with your book.” He gives me another broad smile, an enthusiastic handshake and walks out the door.
My attention turns to the wide-screen TVs that are situated throughout the waiting area of the Amtrak station. For the last forty-five minutes or so they have been displaying a pretty much constant stream of public service announcements talking about “security” and terrorism threats, about how terrorists have an interest in “disrupting transportation networks,” about how the authorities are hard at work to ensure public safety. All kinds of earnest men with vests and weapons and badges and dogs explaining the importance of constant vigilance and reporting strange packages in the stations and being aware of threat levels for terrorism. Remember, if you see something, say something!
You’re supposed to be very vigilant in America, I’ve discovered. And it probably helps to be a little afraid. All the time. Even though the authorities always have your best interests in mind. If you see something, say something.
I wonder what my new writer friend thinks when he sees these kinds of ads. I wonder where the men with the guns and vests and badges and dogs would fit in the stories that he writes. I wonder about the things and the people that he considers “suspicious” and how they might differ from those of a white middle-class Canadian guy.
We heard a lot of impressive sounding words at the conference I attended this week—words about peace and reconciliation and justice and harmony. These words roll off the tongue pretty easily when you tend to find yourself on the right side of things in most of the stories that are told. It’s pretty easy to say that the kingdom of God is about all of these things when your skin is white, your religion is accepted, and your bank account is stable. When you’re not really very suspicious in any way.
My writer friend is getting off at this stop. Off to meet his brother. Off to maybe finish his book about how the bad guys come out as good and the good guys come out as bad. Off, probably, to work at the grocery store later today. He looks more tired than he did back at the train station. Understandably.
We smile at each other as he walks by. I look out the window, thinking about the things we see and the things we say, about the stories we tell and why we tell them.