Maybe it’s the lightly rumpled business suit that screams, "I spend most of my time in transit." Maybe it’s the way he walks as though he knows he’s sporting a combo of windswept silver mane in the front plus a giant bald patch in the back, and he just doesn’t give a shit. Maybe it’s the confidence with which he says, "I’m a New Yawker." Maybe it’s the fact that his name is Gregg with two G's.
Whatever it is, Gregg Turkin, a New York lawyer who saw something and said something, has become one of the city’s low-key memes of late summer/early autumn, crossing over from real life to the internet. Those traveling into the city from the Long Island Rail Road as part of their daily commute have been engaging in Gregg T sightings, plastering his face all over the internet — which isn’t hard to do when his face has already been plastered all over the subway.
Gregg T’s unlikely memeification has served as a source of humor, frustration, and even unlikely inspiration for New Yorkers and internet denizens alike. Witness this response to the sight of his beaming face:
Saw his face plastered over the MTA logo on the front of an oncoming train this morning and laughed out loud and thought, for the first time in a long time, "maybe I shouldn't jump...."
Like most memes, this one contains a touch of politics amid the whimsy. But unlike most memes, this one was born directly out of, er, anti-terrorist ads.
"See Something, Say Something" has been a part of New York City life since 9/11
Created the day after 9/11 by New York advertising executive Allen Kay, See Something, Say Something became a citywide phrase after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority adopted it to promote its new safety hotline in the wake of the attack. Despite drawing criticism for encouraging paranoia and inciting New Yorkers to be suspicious of one another, the slogan has become a ubiquitous part of the landscape of modern New York. Its subtle anti-terrorism mantra has spread across the nation. Homeland Security licensed the slogan from the MTA in 2010, a strategy eventually adopted by at least 54 agencies around the globe.
That same year, the New York Times sketched a portrait of the slogan’s memeification: It had appeared as tattoo art, a novel title, an indie rock song, and a theater monologue, and that was all before it had even left the city. By 2012, the motto was obliquely the target of a controversial 30 Rock episode dealing with the pitfalls of turning in your neighbors for suspected terrorism.
Despite the average New Yorker’s awareness of the phrase, and the numerous arrests that have resulted from tips to the MTA’s safety hotline over the years, it’s not clear that the slogan has actually effectively deterred terrorists before they strike.
In 2008, the New York Times reported that though 18 arrests had resulted from the hotline in the previous two years, including two that led to immigrants being deported, none of them had any direct link to terrorism. In 2010, however, the Times Square T-shirt vendor who alerted authorities to the presence of a car containing a car bomb repeated the phrase to reporters after the incident.
Criticism hasn’t stopped the MTA from fully embracing the motto as a part of the average New Yorker’s daily commute. The phrase has also been widely praised, and in the wake of the recent New Jersey and New York bombings, authorities noted the heightened alertness of citizens who tuned in to the slogan and reported hundreds of possible suspicious packages and signs around the region.
See Something, Say Something may not have led us to any terrorists, but it did lead us to Gregg T
Earlier this year, the MTA revamped its promotion of the city slogan with an all-new campaign promoting the catchphrase. The new ads feature real men and women from around the region describing how they saw something and said something. The takeaway seems to be that speaking up is a New Yorker’s duty, it’s easy, and it feels good.
Here’s one of the segments from the campaign, featuring the man himself, Gregg T.
There’s nothing particularly special about Turkin’s promo slot compared with the other alert New Yorkers featured in the campaign. Just like them, he saw something and said something.
But perhaps because Turkin is easily recognizable, perhaps because he was already a known public figure — he served as the assistant district attorney in Nassau County after 1989 and prosecuted a high-profile sex abuse case in 2002 — Turkin has become a meme around the city. Turkin sightings have been cropping up all over the internet, from numerous sightings posted to Reddit’s r/NYC subreddit to various parody Facebook and Twitter accounts. There’s also a parody website that includes a meme gallery of Turkin’s face.
It helps that he still rides the train, so he’s easy to spot.
The bigger question is not how Gregg T became a meme, but why. And that’s something New Yorkers themselves seem to be divided on. Many have commented that the meme is derogatory, meant to mock the washed-out photo of Turkin that’s plastered across the city. Multiple redditors have described the fad as New York City's version of the Harambe meme, which could be because of its steady persistence, its randomness, or its subject’s appearance.
Others counter that the meme is about mocking the slogan itself. Every time Gregg T gets brought up on the internet — which is pretty frequently, since sightings of him on his daily commute are common — snarky remarks about how safe New Yorkers do or don’t feel are sure to follow.
"Isn't he the guy who saw some cars parked where they shouldn’t be and called it in?" reads one typical example. "good job gregg! i feel so much safer now!" A large part of the meme revolves around ironically painting Greg as a safety superhero, a man whose hypervigilance and alertness around the city verges into caricature:
Gregg T. wakes. The terrorist alert on his iPhone illuminates the dark of his bedroom.— Scott Friedstein (@ScottFriedstein) September 19, 2016
"This is your chance, Gregg."
A big part of criticism surrounding See Something, Say Something is that it’s impossible to react to every potential threat in a city like New York. The fear that such terrorism precautions breed paranoia found sharp vocalization on September 19, the morning of the area-wide emergency alert issued for Chelsea bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami. But shortly after the alert went out, a local New Jersey bar owner spotted and recognized Rahami and alerted police. In other words, he saw something and said something.
It could be easy to write off the Gregg T meme as a form of New Yorkers’ favorite pastime of complaining about everyday New York life. But just as there were parts of the Harambe meme being driven by genuine sincerity, there are plenty of people who do seem to find Gregg T the likable neighborhood hero the MTA wants him to be.