Train in Vain

This summer, I've had a lot of trouble simply getting from point A to point B. First, there was the "African king" who approached me at the Metro Transit Center light-rail stop and attempted to get me to clean out my checking account and hand it over to him ["The King and I," May 12]. Two months later, on I-10 on the outskirts of Sealy, I was held at gunpoint by DPS officers who believed me to be a kidnapper ["Road Signs," July 14].

What more could go wrong? I found out on a hot August afternoon, less than a month after the Sealy encounter.

This one began much as my African king misadventure: on or around a METRORail stop. I had arrived at work extremely early that day -- just after the building opened at eight -- and had skipped lunch, so when it was time to go home, I was very tired and hungry.

Just before leaving, I had read some unsettling news stories on the Web -- Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was spouting off in a video about how none of us in the West were safe, how, Allah willing, our streets would run red with blood, blah blah blah. And then some expert was quoted as saying that Al-Zawahiri's videos tended to arrive just before a new attack. It had worked that way in the Madrid train slaughter, he said.

Still, all Al-Zawahiri's rhetoric amounted to for me was a slight ratcheting up of post-9/11 paranoia. After all, that kind of thing never happens in Houston.

Or so I thought. Anyway, five o'clock rolled around and I grabbed a copy of The New Yorker and headed to the Bell Street rail station. (I had quit using the transit center stop thanks to the African king.) The train arrived, and I got on and had buried my nose in the magazine when things got weird. The day was about to take a turn for the dreamlike -- though perhaps "nightmarish" would be a better word.

The train had pulled into McGowen Station. As usual, the doors opened and some people got on and off. But this time the doors stayed open and the train just sat there. In itself, that's not too out of the ordinary. I was thinking how our light rail was getting just like the subway in New York or London -- you know, lots of unexplained stops and unaccountable delays. And just like in New York, the train was crowded and a baby was crying. It was slightly hellish.

So we sat there for about five minutes with no word from the driver to explain the delay. All of a sudden the driver got out of his compartment and jogged down the platform toward the end of the train shouting something to us. All I could hear was "…three or four minutes…"

"What did he say besides 'three or four minutes'?" asked the middle-aged black lady sitting across from me. Nobody could say.

A few minutes passed. The baby was still crying. The driver was still AWOL. Then we started to hear sirens. A Metro police motorcycle purred past. The cop pulled directly in front of the train, switched off the motor, got out and ran toward the rear of the train. That was when some of us decided to get out to see what was going on -- and others whipped out their cell phones. For the first time, people got nervous. You heard a lot of stuff like "Some kind of delay…" "Maybe there's been an accident…" "I think somebody got run over…" The baby cried on.

As for me, I thought to myself, "This is how it happens."

Since I don't have a cell phone, I got out of the train to see what was going on. For the first time, I noticed that this train had a second car attached to the rear. I wasn't sure why, as Metro generally only doubles up when there's a big event going on, but there it was. It was weird -- like one of those dreams you have about discovering a new, hidden room in your house.

Weirder still was the fact that down there by the other car there was a rugby scrum of about eight cops -- some from the Metro PD, some from Houston PD and, somewhat ominously, a few others I had never seen before who were wearing olive-green fatigues, all laboring to pin down a fiftysomething guy with dark skin who wasn't going down easy. (Turns out the soldier-looking guys were members of Metro's Special Ops unit.) About that time the driver reappeared -- this time, looking a bit agitated -- and told those of us who weren't already off the train that we'd all better get off, fast. We didn't need to be told twice.

I stayed near the front of the train and made sure to place the carriages between myself and the tussle on the platform. A clean-cut fiftysomething white guy walked up to me and said, "I'm getting as far away from that as I can." By this time, Main Street was blocked off in both directions, there were a couple of news helicopters chuckling overhead, and more cops -- some with bomb-sniffing dogs -- were headed to the scene.

I was in a dilemma. After all, I'm a reporter. Half of me wanted to cut and run for Fannin Street and a bus home, while the other half told me to stay on the scene. There could be a Pulitzer in spot-reporting Houston's first terrorist attack. That is, if I survived.

I stayed, and thankfully there would be no Pulitzer. It was all a hoax. Turns out the "terrorist" was an unstable guy with a backpack full of nothing and a mouthful of lies. He was hauled away in cuffs, and we were all allowed back on the train.

When I boarded, in an amazing coincidence, my seat out of all the seats had been taken by Press employee Tamara Banda. (Up to then, neither of us knew the other was on the train.) Though we've worked together for years, we don't know each other all that well, and when I saw her there, she looked somehow different than I remembered her. Again this bizarre commute felt like a feverish dream. You know how random people from your day-to-day life are always popping up in your sleep in the most unlikely places? It was like that.

All of this was like that.

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