by S. Abbas Raza
Note: This is a true story about something that happened 17 years ago but I am publishing it here this week, which marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01, to give an indication of the many ways that life changed for people in the wake of that horrific day.
Recently I came upon this photo of my friend Eric, me, and his father, tucked into a book that I was trying to place in the correct place on my shelves as a part of a recent book-organizing effort and it made me think about one of the scarier events in my life. It was 2004. It was also only a couple of years after 9/11 and by then the Patriot Act was in full effect and I personally knew completely innocent people who had been caught up in the “bad Muslim” dragnet and had been detained, deported from America, etc. It was in this atmosphere that I was invited to attend my good friend Eric’s wedding on a lake in Michigan. I found the cheapest ticket possible which would involve a stopover in Pittsburgh on the way to Detroit from NYC and a stop in Philadelphia on the way back. I also reserved a rental car at the Detroit airport to get to the rural lake where the wedding was going to be.
So, on Eric’s wedding weekend, I braved the always-horrible M60 bus from the upper west side to Laguardia airport and, after going through the terrible post-9/11 security, got on my plane to Pittsburgh. All went fine.
Once in Pittsburgh, I wandered about the terminal looking at shops and tried to while away the time until my next flight and at the same time tried to ignore my nicotine cravings (I used to smoke two packs of Marlboro Red every day at that time) but in the end I couldn’t do it and decided to just go outside for a smoke, even though that meant I would have to again stand in the security line to get back to my gate for the flight to Detroit.
So there I was, sitting on a bench just outside the terminal, quickly smoking the second of my cigarettes within 15 minutes, and frequently glancing at my watch to make sure I still had enough time to get through security and onto my flight to Detroit, when I was startled by a man (African-American, in his late 30s most likely, dressed neatly in civilian clothes) who said to me in a tone which canceled all the politeness of his words, “Sir, excuse me, I am a Federal Marshal and I would like to speak to you.”
He was showing me a badge by now and before I could respond, said to me in his deep voice, “Could you please come with me?” As I got up from the bench, we were joined by another man (same age, white, and who looked quite a bit like Nicholas Cage) who was also some kind of marshal I assumed. I followed Deep Voice (whose name I still have I am almost sure, written down somewhere in the depths of my filing cabinets, but cannot remember off the top of my head), and Nick Cage followed me, quickly and quietly through a nearby door back into the terminal.
They took me down a little hallway off to one side of the terminal and into a small windowless room with blank walls and a table and a few chairs and asked me to sit down. The first thing Deep Voice asked me was, “Who were you waiting for outside?”
Me: “No one.”
Deep Voice: “You were clearly waiting for someone.”
Me: “No. I was not.”
Deep Voice: “You kept looking at your watch, as if your contact was late.”
Me: “Well, I have a flight to catch and didn’t want to be late.”
Deep Voice: “We saw you photographing part of the terminal.”
Me: “Is that illegal?”
Deep Voice: “Why were you photographing the terminal?”
Me: “I like to photograph things. I was bored.”
Nick Cage: “Why did you leave the security cordon between flights and go outside if you were not meeting someone?”
Me: “I wanted to smoke a cigarette.”
Nick Cage: “You don’t mind having to stand in line and going through security again?”
Me: “I do. But I mind not having a cigarette more.”
Deep Voice: “May I see your camera?
So I dug my very small digital camera out of my bag. I kept the camera in an empty metal box of Altoid brand mints for protection and because it fit perfectly and the box made a cool-looking camera case.
Deep Voice: “Why do you keep your camera disguised as a box of mints?”
I explained that it fits well, looks cool, etc., but they didn’t look like they were buying it. Deep Voice turned on the camera and looked through all my photos, then passed the camera to Nick who then scrolled through the photos as Deep Voice continued to question me: “Where do you live?”
Me: “New York City.”
Deep Voice: “What is your address?”
Me: “XXX XXXX XXXXX Street, Apartment XX, New York, New York, 10025.”
Deep Voice: “Do you have any roommates?”
Me: “I live with my wife.”
Deep Voice: “What is her name?”
Me: “Margit Oberrauch.”
Deep Voice: “I notice your hands are very sweaty.”
Me: “Yes, I have a condition known as hyperhidrosis.” (This is actually true.)
Deep Voice: “Can I see some ID?”
I have had the same driver’s license for 38 years.
I pulled out the only ID I had on me: my Maryland driver’s license. I got that license on my 16th birthday at which time I lived in Maryland and had never bothered to switch to a New York state license, partly because I hardly ever drove in New York.
Deep Voice: “I thought you said you lived in New York?”
Me: “I do.”
Deep Voice: “Then why do you have a Maryland driver’s license?”
It just went on and on like this for about a half hour, with Deep Voice and Nicky asking an endless series of questions about where I was going, why, for how long, and finding every answer I gave suspicious. Many questions were asked repeatedly every few minutes, like, “What is your address in New York again?” presumably to make sure I was not lying and could keep my story straight. “What is your wife’s name again?” And on and on and on and on.
Deep Voice: “Can we search your bag?”
Me: “Go ahead. I have nothing to hide.”
So they took everything out of my bag and put it on the table and carefully examined my underwear, socks, neckties, toiletries case, etc. Now I was getting nervous that I would miss my connecting flight but they suddenly stood up and said, “You can go.” So I put everything back in my bag and left without looking back and just thought, “What a nuisance!” I got through security and managed to get on my flight to Detroit just in time.
In Detroit I picked up my rental car, pulled out a map and looked at it for a bit and then got on the highway. After some time, I noticed that the same car had been following me for some time at a distance. It looked like an unmarked police car. I speeded up a bit. The car behind speeded up. I slowed down. The other car slowed down. I felt a bit like Humbert Humbert being followed by Quilty except I had no Lolita next to me. This was getting strange. The car followed me right to Eric’s parents’ house but then kept going down the road without even slowing down as I pulled into their driveway. I was a little weirded out but soon forgot about the whole thing as I saw Eric and was introduced to his family and handed a beer. We had great fun that evening in the festive wedding atmosphere and I met and liked Eric’s siblings, the bride’s family, and various other friendly and interesting people. (The photo at the top shows me hanging out with Eric and his father at this time.)
The actual wedding ceremony was the next evening on a sandy beach a few hundred yards from the house on the lake shore. I was dressed in a suit and standing with other people (there were no chairs as far as I remember) just behind Eric’s family as the beautiful bride arrived on the scene. But then I suddenly had to pee really badly. (There had been some champagne.) Going all the way back to the house would have taken so long that I was afraid I might miss the main part of the ceremony, so I quickly headed over to a grove of trees off to one side, thinking I can go behind them and conduct my peeing business.
As I got near the trees I saw a man carrying a camera with a long lens scurry into the trees. I thought it must be the wedding photographer and maybe he had the same problem as me. But soon I was behind the trees and I saw that there was a small clearing with the same car that had been following me from Detroit (it was a Chevy Caprice Classic with a bunch of long antennas poking out of various parts of it) parked in that sandy clearing and the man with the camera was now behind the wheel and he quickly started the car and drove off. I peed.
It was a great wedding, stylish and fun for everyone involved. Even the speeches were good, or at least quite tolerable from what I remember. The next day I drove back to Detroit and returned the rental car and took a shuttle bus to the terminal to get on my flight to Philadelphia. There were no problems and I boarded the plane without incident. But then there seemed to be a delay and the plane remained parked at the gate about 10 minutes past departure time. A flight attendant made an announcement apologizing for the delay and promising that we would be leaving in a few minutes. About five minutes later, from my aisle seat in the middle of the aircraft, I saw an additional passenger come on board. He seemed in his mid-30s, medium height, dressed in khakis, white shirt, and a navy blue blazer, and sported a short crew cut. Was it my imagination or was there a distinct bulge under his left armpit? This new passenger was led down the aisle directly toward me by a flight attendant and then they stopped directly in front of me and the flight attendant leaned over.
She was speaking not to me but to the man sitting next to me in the middle seat: “Sir, there has been a mistake. That seat belongs to this gentleman here,” pointing to the new passenger, “We need to move you to another seat. Please come with me.” The man next to me got up and gathered his things and then the new passenger sat down in his seat and gave me a long, silent look. I tried not to look intimidated but I was. An Air Marshal (or some other kind of military man with extensive training in how to kill people very quickly) had been brought onto the flight just to keep an eye on me. Why? Who did they think I was? What did they think I was planning to do? I knew that it was just small and careless mistakes by the security agencies which led to the ruining of countless innocent lives in this age of the Patriot Act when there was no way to defend oneself against any outrageous accusation and the government could detain me indefinitely without charge or due process. It was not a comforting thought. I started sweating with visions of being in orange clothing, hands bound, head hooded, on a Hercules C-130 headed to Guantanamo, in my head.
I sat very still as the plane took off and took care to keep my hands visible in my lap and later on top of the tray table once the seatbelt signs were switched off and the drinks service began. When the flight attendant asked our row for drink orders, the killer-type guy next to me declined. I asked for a coke and received that crappy airline half-a-small-glass of it with one pathetic ice cube and a small bag of peanuts. I ate the peanuts first and then drank the coke in one gulp and then even chewed and ate the ice cube. I was too afraid to even look over at what Killy was doing.
The rest of the flight was spent by me looking straight ahead and not making any sudden moves. We finally landed and I got off the plane with Killy right behind me. As we exited the ramp from the aircraft into the terminal, there were a couple of uniformed security people hanging around and they said hello to Killy. I went straight to a screen that listed departures to see if my flight to New York was on time and which gate it was going to depart from. Killy loitered behind me. I decided to ignore him (what else could I do?) and walked into the main part of the terminal. I saw a food court and realized I had eaten nothing all day and was very hungry. So I sauntered over to a Sbarro and ordered two slices of pizza, coated them with a layer of crushed red pepper, got a decent-sized coke, and started walking toward a free table in the food court. It was then that I realized Killy was gone.
Once I sat down and started eating my pizza I suddenly realized how tired I was. I had not slept enough (it was a late night at the wedding, of course) and let’s just say I wasn’t feeling great. But the pizza was good. I finished one slice and started on the other as I thought about all the strange events starting with my interrogation in Pittsburg.
And then suddenly who do I see strolling casually but directly toward my table? Deep Voice! What was he doing in Philadelphia now? Was he here for me? Before I could think of an answer to my own question, he came straight over and said, “How you doin’? Can I sit with you for a minute?”
Deep Voice, sitting down on a chair across the table from me: “How was the wedding?”
Me: “Good. I mean, it was fun.”
Deep Voice: “Take any pictures?”
Me: “Yes, I did.”
Deep Voice: “Can I see ‘em?”
So I retrieved my box of Altoid mints from my bag and got the camera out and turned it on and handed it over to him. He sat there scrolling through close to a hundred pictures I had taken in Michigan, examining each one carefully. Meanwhile, I sat there staring at him.
Finally, he returned the camera to me and asked, “I need to ask you some more questions.”
Me: “Why? What is this all about? I have cooperated with you fully but now you are testing my patience.”
Deep Voice: “Can you tell me your address again in New York?”
And then a bad thing happened: I started getting angry. I mean really angry. Those who know me well know that I lose my temper seldom but it’s not pretty when I do. I felt like I was getting past the point where I could control myself.
Me, turning as red as a brown man can: “No, I will not answer any more questions. How DARE you harass me like this? Do you think I am scared of YOU? Well, let me tell you, I AM NOT. Do you get paid to harass people? GIVE me your badge number and full name!”
By now I had raised my voice enough that people at other tables were turning to look at us.
Me, almost shouting: “Either ARREST me, in which case I demand a lawyer, or LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE!”
Deep Voice, very calmly: “So, you refuse to answer my questions?”
Me, trembling with anger: “Yes, damn right I refuse to answer your questions!”
Deep Voice, getting up from his chair, quietly: “Okay. I’ll see you soon then.”
And with that he turned around and walked off quickly. I just sat there with the uneaten slice of pizza and tried to calm down. As the anger subsided, fear took its place. Deep Voice’s parting words haunted me. Had he gone to get reinforcements? What did he mean by “I’ll see you soon then”? Then I really started to panic.
Certain that I probably had only minutes of freedom left, I tried to think of what I should do. I figured I should let someone know what is happening in case I am made to just disappear. I also thought I might need legal help and so I should call my brother who could arrange something like that. I walked straight over to a bank of payphones about 30 yards away, looking over both shoulders frequently the whole time. I called my brother’s home number. No answer. I was getting more panicky by the second now and didn’t know how long I had before Deep Voice would be back with goodness-knows whom. I stood there next to the phone bank for a few minutes and tried again to calm myself. Finally I decided that I was just going to walk to the gate for my flight to New York. That was one of the most nervous five or so minutes of my life. I expected to hear Deep Voice’s deep voice any second from behind, “Stop right there, Raza!”
But it did not happen. I made it to the gate and checked in. I felt calmer as I sat waiting for the flight. And then I boarded the plane. And then we left the gate. And then we took off and I felt a little safer. And then we landed at Laguardia. And I came outside. And I got on the M60 bus and got off at my stop on Broadway in Manhattan. And I crossed the street, still half expecting Deep Voice to suddenly appear out of nowhere and arrest me. But he didn’t. And so I entered my building and walked up the stairs to my apartment and let myself in.
“Hey, so how was the wedding?” Margit asked me.
“Good. I mean, it was fun,” I replied for the second time that day.
On the 5th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01, we published a series of reflections about them by various people, including me, at 3QD which you can see here.