Sometimes I must leave the city, and this was one of those days. I headed to Pennsylvania Station to take a train but, due to a delay on the subway, I arrived a few minutes after it departed. With nearly an hour to wait until the next train, I passed the time exploring the enormous maze of floors and passageways.
While walking through one of the lower levels, I noticed a doorway crisscrossed with yards of yellow tape ominously marked “Police Line Do Not Cross.” I stepped closer and saw two paper notices fastened on and near the tape.
The both bore the same message: a notice to Amtrak employees telling them that the entryway was closed (apparently, the yards of tape weren’t enough of an indication) and that they should use another entrance. And, in case any Amtrak employees weren’t sure what an entrance was, both notices were helpfully illustrated with photographs of doorways. A pair of uniformed Amtrak workers strolled by while I was reading the signs, and we joked about management’s assessment of their intelligence (“I guess they figured if they didn’t put up a sign, we’d just walk through the tape.”).
I unpacked my camera and began to photograph the doorway. Suddenly, my lens was dark. I looked up and saw a large, red-faced man in a dark jacket who’d placed himself between the doorway and the camera. He demanded to know why I was taking a picture.
New York, as you probably know, has no shortage of crazies. I deal with them all the time, usually simply by putting as much distance between us as quickly as possible. This fellow, however, was already close enough to touch me. I felt I’d better say something, so I asked whether he had a problem with me taking pictures. He did, he said. I told him to get over it and, wanting to avoid a confrontation even more than I wanted the photo, I quickly walked away.
A few minutes later, I heard an announcement that my train was ready for boarding. I ran down the stairway, jumped on board, settled into a seat and began to read a magazine. Suddenly, I was aware that someone was standing over me.
I looked up and saw two police officers. They told me that they’d received a report and that I fit the description of the person involved. “Were you taking pictures in the station?,” asked one of the men. Yes, I was. “Can you tell me what compelled you take pictures?,” he asked.
Compelled? I didn’t feel compelled, I explained, I just thought it would make a good picture. I thought it was funny. They asked me to describe what happened and I did. They exchanged looks, then asked why I’d left the scene rather than talk to the man who’d approached me.
A horrible thought occurred to me. “Was he a cop?,” I asked. “He didn’t identify himself as a cop.” “No, he was no cop,” said the officer. “He works for Amtrak.” I explained that I’d left because thought he was a nut. Why would I stick around to talk to an angry nut?
The policemen asked more questions: why do I take photographs? What do I do with them? Just then, one of the officers glanced down at the magazine in my hands. It was a thick, glossy issue of Art in America. “Are you an artist?,” asked the policeman. I thought a moment, and decided that even though it is not the occupation I list on my tax returns, my photos are a kind of art. “Yes,” I replied.
“An artist,” he said. He turned to his partner and repeated the words. “An artist.” They both nodded. “Oh, well, you were taking the pictures for your art,” said the policeman. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
They told me that the man who’d blocked my view should have identified himself, but since he had called the authorities and reported me, they were obligated to follow up and investigate.
We began to discuss art, photography and Brooklyn when we heard a signal — the train was about to depart. The officers hurriedly gave me their names, shook my hand, and, repeating the words, “You didn’t do anything wrong,” stepped onto the platform just before the doors slid shut.
Thanks, NYPD. Thanks, Art in America.