See It, Say It

Barney Moss/Flickr
Barney Moss/Flickr

“See it. Say it. Sorted.” It’s a slogan posted all over the British underground, trams, airports, and train stations as part of a public awareness campaign about the helpful role ordinary citizens can play in keeping public transport safe. I like the ring of the slogan, mainly because it immediately calls to mind my friend from Leeds who often said to her children, “Let’s get you sorted.” Sorted: fixed up, taken care of. I also enjoy the similar sound of sorted and sordid.

The campaign started in November 2016. After three years, calls and texts to the British transport police had reportedly increased 365 percent. But the slogan, not only printed but also announced over PA systems, grated on many users. I couldn’t find online a single positive comment about the campaign. Many protested its Big Brother overtones and the call for citizens to police their fellows. The slogan was creepily reminiscent, wrote one commenter, of the “Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes” poster from 2002, which was pasted in buses in the United Kingdom to tell travelers of the benevolent presence of police on public transport.

One writer of an online post reported that the “See it, Say it” slogan affected him like the scrape of chalk on a chalkboard, sending shivers down his spine and making him clench his teeth. His gripe was not about the demand made on the citizenry but the unclear terms of it. Originally, the message said to report “anything that doesn’t look right.” That was later amended to the more general “anything unusual,” which raised the writer’s hackles. A well-dressed traveler in London’s Underground, he claimed, was more unusual than someone behaving aggressively. “And what does ‘sorted’ mean?” he asked. His answer: that an incident is given a crime number and then forgotten. He deemed the slogan both vulgar and deceitful.

Even before the wording was changed, people had trouble with it. One commenter said he saw plenty in the trains that didn’t look right. He wrote, “Perhaps we should mention all the broken, tired, weedy or sad things at our stations.” Yes—why focus on criminal misbehavior with so much fraying of the social fabric? In New York City some years ago, the Broken Windows campaign was to fix the little things so the big ones would not happen. But instead of the policing of small infractions, we could start, I thought, by helping the homeless. I remembered dismaying news reports of whole families living in temporary housing. But what struck me one night this past January was the plight of a homeless man in Gijón. I was on my way home on a chilly evening, walking from work to my car at about 8:30 p.m. At the busy intersection of Cuatro Caminos, I stopped for the signal to change, and I looked around while I waited. Behind me was the Unicaja bank, closed and darkened except for its glassed entry where an ATM was available for after-hours use. The entry, a sort of antechamber, was well lit, appearing from the street almost like a stage in a dark theater. With the door to the street closed and locked, customers would feel safe using the cash machine. But are you ever really safe? Whoever is within the antechamber is practically in a spotlight, and anyone wishing to waylay someone later need only wait in the dark entry of a nearby business and follow the person until the opportunity is ripe.

Within the antechamber that evening, in the far corner, a man was sitting on a piece of cardboard arranged along the wall, his back against the door into the bank proper. He had removed his shoes and placed them side-by-side at the edge of the cardboard. The scene recalled a minimalist skit, where a few props suggest a whole setup, and for a moment I had the impression that the man was acting, and a viewer on the street might be intended to picture a bedroom with a bedside table, bed, and a rug beside it. The man hardly moved but did not appear to be sleeping. This man, with his setup of a bedroom that was only an imaginary bedroom, seemed worse off than the typical homeless person pushing a cart filled with belongings or sleeping on a park bench. What was the temperature within the glassed entry compared to the street, I wondered, and how long had he waited before setting up for the night? What were the chances of his sleeping through the night undisturbed? I wanted to take note of what possessions he had with him, but I didn’t like to look openly. It felt invasive. Sleeping on the cold floor was bad enough without getting stared at too. But how could you not stare?

On the street corner, I shifted to look over my other shoulder. I was 30 feet away, one of several pedestrians waiting on the signal, and partially shielded by the night, yet I felt the man inside could detect my presence. Soon the light changed, and I crossed, looking back from the far side. The man in his room was smaller, the room the only source of light among the other storefronts. How, I wondered, could this man have no better option? Did he have no one—no mother, father, or other family—to help him? Sort him? No one who could offer him something a bit better than a bank antechamber?

Rain was predicted for the next afternoon, but it had not yet started when I parked and walked from my car the following day. It was 2:30 p.m., and the bank was closed. I wondered about the homeless man. Would he be ensconced in his shelter? Killing time nearby until he felt it was safe to occupy his corner? Did he have another place to wait out the rain during daylight hours? As I came near enough to see, I peered into the chamber at the bank and saw what seemed to be a flattened cardboard box such as had been the man’s insulating pad the night before. I wondered if it belonged to the homeless man and if he’d stashed it there in preparation for the evening, to prevent its getting soaked by the coming rain. When had he done that? Surely not during business hours. Nothing seemed sadder than a homeless person burdened by the same responsibilities as homeowners to bring things in out of the rain—a lawn chair, the washing, a towel used for sunning on the grass—with none of the rights and comforts of someone with a home.

I saw no other sign of the man. Would he be in his corner when I left work? “I’ll have to check,” I thought. And then I did not think of him again, even on leaving work that night, when I hurried along the street through the drizzle to my car, my head down, my mind on the drive home and my bed at the end. I crossed Cuatro Caminos and didn’t look back, and I didn’t see the homeless man. No sighting, no saying, no sorting. As if he didn’t exist.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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