For me, one of the benefits of being a freelancer is not having to take mass transit during rush hour. Nevertheless, last week I found myself on the 79th Street crosstown bus at 5:30 p.m., which is a bit like being stuffed inside a can of sardines—live, irritated, smelly sardines. There was the usual friction between the people standing toward the back hoarding their personal space and the people trying to get on who were calling out, “Move back, people!” And, of course, there was the continuous vying for seats.
I happened to be sitting in a side seat, near the front, under the sign that reads: “Won’t you please give this seat to the elderly or disabled?” At Fifth Avenue, an older man got on. He looked as if he was in his early 70s, though he did not seem in any way infirm or unsteady on his feet. After struggling for a moment with the selfish desire for my own comfort, I offered him my seat.
The man waved me off with a stiff “no thanks.” I looked up at him. He stood right over me; there was no place else to go on the packed bus. I could see he was annoyed. “I’m not that old yet, I hope,” he muttered at me in a sarcastic tone. That was when I understood that I had, unwittingly, emasculated him. That, according to his old-school mentality, he’s supposed to get up for me, not the other way around. Still, I wondered, how could anyone misinterpret such a simple common courtesy?
Then I thought back to the time a few years ago when someone gave me his seat on the subway, winked and said, “You should not be on your feet in your condition.” I realized with horror he had thought I was pregnant! I did not enjoy getting that seat (and I never wore that dress ever again).
The problem with offering up your seat, which we all know is the right thing to do, is that the etiquette is not always black and white. You could, of course, relinquish your seat for everyone, which at rush hour would mean you would never sit down at all. But most of us are tired enough at the end of a day that we can’t pass up an empty seat. And unless someone unmistakably “seat-needy” gets on—someone elderly; someone with a cane, a cast or a brace; someone who is pregnant, blind or sick; or someone who is carrying bulky packages or a baby—we tend to think, “First come, first served.”
As sexist as it sounds, it would be simpler for everyone if strong young men were willing to offer up their seats more frequently. (It’s not that young men are any more capable of standing than young women are, but let’s face it: most young women these days are wearing heels.) On the other hand, I try not to judge every young man harshly for not doing this—it isn’t always easy to tell who has a physical problem. When I was in my early 30s, I had a herniated disk, and it wasn’t obvious to others how much pain I was in.
Maybe the seemingly oblivious guy playing games on his iPod does, in fact, have a bad knee. Maybe he’s got heel spurs. Maybe he’s an exhausted hospital intern who just worked a triple shift and saved the lives of three people with gunshot wounds. Okay, probably not. But you never know.
For those of us without hidden gunshot wounds, there are basically three ways to offer someone your seat:
1) Look inquiringly at the person. Shift as if you are about to get up, placing one hand on the back of your seat. Watch to see if he looks grateful/hungry for a seat. He will make a move toward you if he wants to accept. This is known as the “Edge of My Seat” method.
2) Vacate the seat before he figures out you are moving because of him. For all he knows, you are nearing your stop. (This method is not recommended on a very crowded bus, as someone else is likely to pounce on the seat before your chosen beneficiary can get to it.)
3) Ask: “Would you like my seat?” This is the “Direct Approach,” which, as I have shown, can sometimes backfire. But it’s by far the most civilized, so it’s worth the risk.
Macho 70-year-olds notwithstanding.
*Originally published in The West Side Spirit, November 16, 2011