Those of you who have never taken 20-24 hour flights can probably scarcely imagine the vertigo-inducing fatigue involved. I have taken one of these flights fairly regularly for decades now, from Karachi to New York, and find it hard to understand how my elderly parents ever survived them. In addition to the sheer length of time for which one is confined to one’s (in my case, very small economy-class) seat, these flights almost always originate in the early hours of the morning, giving one just enough time to reach the deeper parts of sleep after having spent the evening packing, buying last-minute things, and saying goodbye to friends, before one must heave oneself up from bed at something like 3 in the morning, say one’s emotional goodbyes to relatives, and head for Qaid-e-Azam International along the deserted Sharia Faisal. So one almost always even starts the trip in a groggy, enervated state. Then, as if almost a full day in the stale, dessicated air and cramped and noisy quarters of a Pakistan International plane (they must have the highest ratio of children to adults of any airline) weren’t enough, there is the time-difference induced jet lag to contend with upon arrival at JFK, and for some reason I am always unable to eat any of the last meal they serve on the plane.
All this is to give you a sense of how I am usually feeling physically and mentally as I stand in the long immigration lines at JFK waiting for my passport to be stamped. And there I was standing one morning about three years ago. When my turn finally came up at the counter, the INS agent asked me more questions than usual, and then closed his counter and asked me to follow him to a large room at the side of the immigration hall. Once there, along with a bunch of other people who had also been pulled aside for extra questioning, I waited for my file’s turn to be examined by the officer at the counter there. (The original INS agent had deposited me and then returned to his duties elsewhere.) Finally my name was called, and after some very aggressive questioning about who I am, what I do, where I live, and on and on (and they frequently keep asking the same questions over and over, making one feel like they are hoping to trip you up in case you are lying), I was informed that I was being detained. Two agents handcuffed me and led me to another smaller room. When I asked what I had done, they said things like, “Oh, you know what you’ve done. You are in trouble, my friend.” Then I asked to call a lawyer, and I was informed that I hadn’t yet been admitted to the United States, and so had no legal standing. No lawyer would be called, nor would I be allowed to call anyone else. They took my cuffs off, fingerprinted me (very difficult because of my sweaty palms), recuffed me and then left me there.
It was at this point that my knees went a little trembly. I had heard many stories of Pakistanis being held under the Patriot Act without charges for months, and now I had visions of Guantanamo in my head, and I became almost dizzy with the adrenaline rush of fear. I thought that I must have been mistaken for someone else, God knows who, and there would be no chance to clear my name. At this point, I was so tired and hungry that I could barely stand up. After a few hours, a woman came to the room to get some papers she needed and I took this opportunity to beg her to let me call my girlfriend. I guess she took pity on me. She took out a cell phone and asked for the number. I told her and she dialed it and then held the phone to my ear (my hands were cuffed behind me). Margit (now my wife) answered the phone and immediately started asking what had happened, why I wasn’t home yet, she was so worried, etc. I told her to stop talking as I didn’t have much time. I told her I had been detained by the INS, and that she should contact a lawyer and my brother immediately, and get someone to JFK. I would try to call her again if I could, but wasn’t sure if I would be able to. To her credit, she was calm, and I felt much better that at least someone knew what was happening to me.
I then sat in that room for another few sweat-drenched hours before a couple of INS officers came in along with two police officers from the NYPD. The NYPD officers told me that they had a warrant for my arrest. This immediately came as a relief to me, because whatever it was they wanted with me, I would rather be held by the NYPD in New York, than in some INS facility. I felt like whatever it was, I would be able to clear it up. That’s when things started to get weird: the NYPD officers addressed me as Mr. Edward Sampson, as in, “Let’s go, Sampson.” When I protested that I wasn’t Edward Sampson, whoever that might be, they told me that fingerprints don’t lie, and I had a full ten-finger match as one wanted Edward Sampson. They told me to stop lying and just admit that I really was Edward Sampson. The name sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place it in my exhausted state. The INS guys removed my cuffs and the NYPD officers produced a kind of wide leather belt which looked vaguely like some S&M contraption, put it on me, then cuffed my hands to it. I was then led out for the perp walk in front of all the other passengers, coming out by the regular path where people wait for their friends and relatives to come out. Most people whispered to each other rather excitedly when they saw me being led out, held by each arm by one of the officers, wearing this restraint, and a nice suit I had had tailored while in Pakistan.
It was then that I remembered who Edward Sampson was, and it came to me suddenly: about a decade earlier, my nephew Asad and I had been having a drink with my friend Karim at the West End Restaurant and Bar (where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to hang out) near Columbia University (I had just started the Ph.D. program in philosophy there), when four rough looking characters wandered in. They looked like skinheads, and they sat at the table behind where we were standing at the bar. Asad had draped his jacket over one of the chairs on which one of these guys was now sitting, and so he tapped the guy on the shoulder so he could retrieve his jacket. I saw the guy stand up and get in Asad’s face, but couldn’t hear what was going on. The man then raised his voice and I heard the N-word being yelled at Asad along with a string of curses, after which the man grabbed my nephew’s hair with his left hand and drew back his right fist, getting ready to throw a punch. I hit him first. I had lunged from the side, and my momentum threw both of us to the floor. I didn’t know it then, but I was rolling around on the floor of the West End with one Edward Sampson.
We were separated by the bouncers of the West End and all six of us were thrown out. Once outside, these guys ganged up on me and managed to throw me to the ground where I hit my head on the sidewalk. I was momentarily stunned, and had no chance after that. Mr. Sampson pummeled me pretty good. Then the police arrived, and Sampson and crowd quickly walked off. I explained to the police that my nephew had been assaulted, and while trying to protect him, I, too had been beaten up and the guys were trying to get away. The police told me that if I insisted on having them arrested, they would have to arrest Asad and me as well, since they hadn’t been there to see who started it. When I produced witnesses, they dismissed them as my friends, so I said fine, go ahead and arrest all of us, but I am not going to let these punks get away with this. I figured we would sort it out later in court. And so the four of them were also picked up and all six of us were driven to a precinct where we had our portraits taken, were fingerprinted, etc., before being released on our own recognizance. And at that precinct is where I first heard the name of my attacker: Edward Sampson.
The next day, after a trip to the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary, I showed up at the philosophy department at Columbia with black eyes, swollen mouth, etc. Sidney Morgenbesser was the first to offer his help, and Akeel Bilgrami made a call to a lawyer friend of his. They knew what they were doing, because the next morning I received a phone call from Robert Morgenthau’s office (he was, and might still be, the District Attorney of New York) telling me to go down to the courthouse on Center Street, where a couple of assistant DAs were waiting for me. They listened to my story, called a few of the witnesses, and then told me that charges against Asad and me were being dropped, and that Sampson and his friends would be prosecuted under the hate crimes statute of New York. I was pleased by this, and felt vindicated that I had insisted that the police arrest everyone, rather than just letting these guys walk. Except that those people didn’t show up at their hearing, and were never heard from again.
By the time the NYPD guys had put me into the back of their van outside JFK, I had figured out what must have happened: somehow, that night ten years before, someone at the precinct had made a clerical error, and had somehow put Edward Sampson’s name and other information on my fingerprint card. Then, when they didn’t show up for their hearing, a warrant was issued for Sampson’s arrest (and for all I knew, he might have committed other crimes since), and now I had been arrested as Edward Sampson. This was the only explanation I could think of, and it sounded plausible to me. I excitedly told the NYPD guys this theory, but they were pretty unimpressed. One of them said that people often come up with crazy stories when they get caught, but this was one of the best he had heard. I told him to look at me. Did I even look like I might be named Edward Sampson? I just kept repeating my theory to them until finally, one of them, Detective John Regan of the Queens Warrant Squad, started to believe me, at least a little. He told his partner, “Look, it sounds crazy, but it might be true. While you guys see the judge (I was being taken to a courthouse in Manhattan where I would be presented to a judge, and we needed to get there before midnight, which was getting close, otherwise I would have to wait in lockup overnight) I’ll go try to find the records from that arrest ten years ago.”
At this point, I begged to be given some food, and again, Regan made the other guy stop at a Chinese restaurant and got me a fried rice (which he paid for) and even put hot sauce on it per my request. He then uncuffed me so I could eat. His partner was not happy at this lenient method of treating a just-captured fugitive, but Regan was by now convinced that I just wasn’t the right type of guy to be a criminal. I shall always be grateful for that meal and Detective Regan’s kindness. At the courthouse, Regan disappeared to look for the old arrest record while I was taken into a courtroom where I was appointed a public defender. Now this guy was a complete idiot. He kept telling me to stop lying and just plead guilty to a reduced charge for which I would just get some community service and no jail time. No matter what I said to him, he would not believe that I was not Edward Sampson. Meanwhile, Regan showed up with a file containing the decade-old arrest records, and luckily it had a picture of Edward Sampson in it. But even then, my supposed lawyer kept saying things like, “That could have been you ten years ago.” Finally the judge herself yelled at him and said, “It is unlikely that your client has changed race since that arrest. And why would he have been arrested for beating himself up?” She told me I was free to go. I was then driven by Detective Regan and his partner back to JFK, where I was released. Asad was waiting for me there.
Detective Regan then offered to help me clear up the problem with the fingerprints, and after some detective work, called me with a strange bit of news: Edward Sampson had committed suicide in 1996 by jumping out of his 5th floor window. So I had essentially been arrested as a dead man for beating myself up. However, the fingerprints were now in many different databases, including the FBI, the state police, INS, and God only knows who else. He suggested I find a lawyer to help me clear this up. So I did. I was assured that the problem had been taken care of, and everything was fine, and indeed, I flew in and out of the country several times without incident. Then, three days ago, I got on a train headed to Montreal for Justin’s wedding. At the border, Canadian customs and immigration officials boarded the train for their inspection of the passengers’ documents. I was asked to step outside where the aggressively hostile questioning began. Finally when they asked why I had two social security numbers, I realized that Edward Sampson’s ghost was back to haunt me. I told them the whole story, and luckily, after much heated discussion and some phone calls, they believed me (because all the details I gave them matched what they had, including the name Edward Sampson, which they had not told me, but which they knew). But they warned me that I may be arrested by American immigration officials on my way back, so I was pretty nervous last night. It didn’t happen. Now I don’t know what to do. If any of you have any ideas, let me know.
Have a good week!
My other recent Monday Musings:
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President