Thursday, January 5, 2012


Rather late on a weekday night in the early 1970s, I was waiting between the two sets of tracks in Park Street Station for the train to Harvard Square. The only other person visible was a young man walking back and forth on the other side of the Cambridge-bound tracks, looking intently into the pit. "What the hell is he doing?" I thought. It was difficult to imagine anything good that could come of a fascination with the underside of the subway.

Conan Doyle says of a fictional young Irishman that he had too much imagination to be a really brave man. I don't think of myself as a nervous person; but very little evidence will set the old literary imagination to conjuring worst case scenarios, which it is very good at. "Does he have some kind of explosive, is he going to blow up the train?" He didn't seem to be carrying anything, but he could have had something in a pocket, or under his jacket. "Is he going to do an Anna Karenina and throw himself under the train?"

We didn't yet have a lot of suicide bombers, but the world has never lacked violent lunatics. Watching this young guy, I experienced a wave of moral certainty that he was up to no good. Having, as Sherlock Holmes says of the Greek Interpreter, no physical courage, I badly wanted out of that subway station. I tried to figure out how I would get home if I fled up the stairs and out.

My next moral certainty was, "I can't do that." If something ugly was brewing over there that no one else had noticed, I couldn't just run off. Climbing the stairs and crossing over to the other side of the pit, even reserving as I went the right to turn tail and run if the train came before I got there, may have been the bravest thing I have ever done.

By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, the subway-pit enthusiast had been joined by another young man. I strolled over as casually as I could manage and asked what was going on.

The first guy pointed into the pit. "Mice," he said. Sure enough, little dark-colored mice were scurrying around down there. We watched them for a bit, and then I took my leave and strolled off to wait for the train by myself.

I felt, of course, more than a little foolish (although please note that at least one other person had been moved to investigate). But the ridiculous anticlimax that I barged into didn't change the initial decision to act responsibly when I would have vastly preferred not to.