Excuse me, is that your bag?
“Such simple words can mean so much.”
If you live in D.C., these words mean that you’re in an underground Metro station, waiting for your train, enduring WMATA’s (Washington Metro Area Transportation Authority) spectrum of aiming-to-be-clever public service announcements. There’s the one that tells you not to run or play on the train platform, the one that notifies you of the penalty for eating or drinking on the train (a crime nearly akin to manslaughter in the realm of D.C.’s Metro), and the one that reminds you to kindly stand on the right on the escalator to save harried commuters a lot of disgruntled sighing.
The “Excuse me, is that your bag?” announcement seeks to prevent terrorist attempts by encouraging open dialogue among Metro riders. If we see an unattended bag—be it a purse, backpack, or clarinet case—we’re supposed to ask the nearest passenger if the bag belongs to them. If it’s theirs, we’ve saved them a trip to Metro’s Lost & Found (which I’ve heard is a storied place). If it’s not theirs … what was it we’re supposed to do?
One day during my residence in D.C., on my local Green/Yellow line, I was in just this situation. One stop after I’d gotten on at Columbia Heights, the passenger next to me motioned that this was his stop. I stood to let him out of his seat by the window, and as I did, I noticed a small, cubicle bag under the seat I’d been occupying.
Now’s my chance to use my Metro know-how, I thought!
“Excuse me,” I said, catching the attention of my exiting former seatmate, “is that your bag?”
“No,” the passenger said, and then he was gone. I looked around, trying to spot another rider with the appearance of having forgotten something. All eyes were averted, in books, daydreams, and preoccupied thoughts. Then, the automatic doors closed, and the train took off for the next station.
And I realized that, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do.
Notify the authorities? What authorities? The police, the National Guard, or just Metro personnel? And where were these authorities? I didn’t see any of them on the train. Was I supposed to scream and cause enough commotion for the train to stop, at which point I could hurl the offending object out the automatic doors? What did the rest of that darn announcement say?
Lucky for me, I have a bit (if only a bit) of common sense. I decided to get off at L’Enfant Plaza station, a central transfer station several stops away, where I would be certain to find authorities in one form or another.
In the mean time, with no other obvious options, I took my seat (the only open one now), over the abandoned bag—the abandoned bag, which just might contain a bomb. If this parcel did happen to be about to explode, I was in the absolute worst position in the entire Metro network. I debated getting up and moving to the other end of the train, but I didn’t want to shirk my Metro duty to take care of the potentially hazardous carry-on.
I waited. U Street. Shaw/Howard. Mount Vernon. Chinatown. Archives. Just one more stop. Finally, the train pulled into the bustling L’Enfant station. I reached under the seat, grabbed the bag, and exited the train. Through the throngs of people, I could see three men near the escalator wearing Metro badges.
I was moments away from handing off the Molotov cocktail, but I stopped.
I realized that, fear or not, it would be physically impossible for me to hand over the bag without first taking a peek inside. I looked down at the bag, examining it closely for the first time. It was made of teal vinyl with sturdy poly-mesh handles and a circumscribing zipper on top. I unzipped the zipper.
Inside: an apple sitting on top of, and smashing, what looked to be a cheese sandwich.
I walked over to the Metro employees and held the bag out to them. It took them a moment to finish their conversation and notice me standing there.
“I found this bag on the train,” I told them. “I think it’s someone’s lunch.”
One of the men took the bag from me, said something that sounded like “OK,” and then returned to the conversation with the others.
Really? This was what all the announcements came to? You hear them repeated, day in, day out, repeating them yourself in your sleep, and when you finally arrive at the opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and save thousands of innocent commuters from a fiery death—you realize that the biggest calamity of the day is that one poor soul might go lunch-less.