Is this seat taken?

I got on the MBTA’s red line at Park Street last week, heading for the station at Alewife. It was early afternoon, but the train was filling up; most of the seats were taken and some people, rather than squish in next to strangers, were standing and holding the bar overhead. Those people swayed along with the train. The rest of us were so tightly wedged in that we stayed firmly in place.

Lots of people got off at Harvard Square and by the time we reached Davis Square I had noticed an interesting public transportation phenomenon; no one had relocated to a seat where they would no longer be shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger, including me. I didn’t change my seat because I was afraid my neighbor would interpret it as a reflection on them. As a result, when the train pulled into Alewife I was still sitting—in the middle of an almost empty car—next to the woman with music leaking out of her earbuds who sat down next to me at Central Square.

It reminds me of something I saw on television many years ago. A man drove his wife to the supermarket and let her out at the front door. Then he drove around looking for a parking spot. He finally found a spot between two vans that turned out to be a very tight fit, so tight that he couldn’t open his door far enough to get out of the car. While he was trying, he dropped his keys and in scrabbling for them pushed them further under the car. Unable to either get out or move the car, he was reduced to holding his unopened umbrella out the car window so his wife could find him when she finished her shopping. When she came out of the store she waited a bit, looked around for him, and finally hailed a cab. As the day wore on the parking lot emptied, except for the two vans on either side of the hapless hero. Once seated on the subway, despite my physical ability to move, I feel as trapped as that man in the car between two vans.

In all likelihood, the person next to me on the subway would take no more notice of my moving than they would of my presence in the first place. And if they did notice, they’d probably just think I wanted a bit more elbow room. After all, the woman who was sitting next to me hadn’t moved either, and I doubt she was worried about my feelings. She was probably just oblivious.

If everyone on the subway started actively engaging their neighbors, would we have a series of interesting interactions, or would it just become one never-ending game of musical chairs? Let’s stop the music and see.

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5 responses to “Is this seat taken?

  1. But what happened to the man stuck in his car between the two van?

  2. That parking lot story is so sad. Poor guy!

    When I’m in that situation, I just move. People move near me, and I’m not offended. Or maybe I should be….

  3. Choosing a urinal in the men’s room poses a similar dilemma (see Proper Urinal Etiquette). That is, the part about having to judge personal space when you arrive. NOT the part about changing places while you’re underway, of course.

  4. Your comments remind me of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who enjoyed people watching, especially face-to-face interactions in ordinary places such as elevators or trains . He thought life was a theater and we are all actors performing for each other with interaction rituals while trying to avoid embarrassment. I guess this behavior changes when the elevator or train is stuck.

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