12/7/11

Being a Stand-Up Guy (and Why it Can Be Harder to Be a Stand-up Gal)

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

12/1/11

That's My Queue

The other day, as I was in line at Pier 11 for the water taxi to Ikea, I started thinking about how much waiting in line we all do. Every day we wait in line at stores, stations, theaters, banks, post offices and bus stops. We wait in line to get seated at a restaurant, to buy a Metrocard, to get gas. I looked it up: the average person spends over an hour a day waiting in line—that’s two to three years in a lifetime. (If you’re a woman, probably at least one year of that waiting time is spent in line for the ladies’ room.)

Considering how commonplace line-standing is, it’s amazing how many New Yorkers I’ve come across who think, basically, that lines are for suckers. Once friend told me, “Oh, I never wait in lines. I jump the line any way I can. If there are 500 people in the line, you think I’m okay with being 501?” There are other pushy types who habitually barrel ahead of everyone with “just a quick question,” as though they are certain that everyone else standing in line has issues that take much longer to address and so naturally will not mind. Some people, I have heard, actually pay others to wait in line for them.

I guess if I was rich enough I might pay someone to stand in the DMV line for me (I certainly wouldn’t mind someone else posing for my driver’s license photo) but one thing seems clear: We’re a city of eight million people—it’s inevitable that we’ll need to queue up from time to time.  I myself am comforted by a well-run, orderly line. I don’t even like lines where you can choose between several stations, an environment that leads to jockeying for position. I am much happier with a simple, first-come, first-served line. I feel more relaxed knowing that no one, not even me, can cheat the system. Well-defined lines—and people willing to adhere to them—are a sign of civilization. Just think what would happen if no one was willing to “be a sucker” and stand in line. Imagine going to the movies or some other situation where hundreds of people just milled around outside in a big, stressful horde, and at a certain point they all rushed the door at the same time. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine that. All we have to do is go down to Penn Station and watch how New Yorkers behave when a train’s departure gate is announced. It’s chaos.)

Obviously there are many reasons for hating long lines–fatigue, physical discomfort, boredom, loss of time, the feeling of powerlessness (otherwise known as the Sheep Syndrome). I’ve talked to people who get annoyed by how close people stand to them in line or by how loudly their fellow line-standers talk on their cell phones. But one of people’s secret fears about having to stand in line, especially if they are by themselves, is the fear of getting trapped in conversation with someone with whom they’d rather not engage.

You don’t choose who to stand next to as you do at a party. If someone starts talking to you in line, you can’t excuse yourself and go get a drink. You are stuck there. Especially if you are the one who initiated the conversation, there is no graceful way to back up and say, “Sorry, now that I have exchanged a few words with you I can tell I really do not want to speak with you.” Engaging with a stranger in a line is like striking up a conversation with your seatmate on a plane. Once you are in it, you are pretty much in it for the duration.

Nevertheless, (and I know you won’t be surprised that Miss Mingle is telling you this) as long as we do have to spend so much time of our lives in lines, try to be open to in-line socializing. Don’t worry, it’s really not that different from being at a sit-down dinner party. You may have a bore on your left but a beauty on your right. If the person behind you is not your cup of tea, the person in front of you may be.

Note: This is one of those times when complaining is an acceptable conversational ploy. Commiserate about the length of the line—or about the shameless woman you just saw cutting it.


Originally published in The West Side Spirit, October 19, 2001