Is This Seat Taken?

June 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings, Pleasures, Travel

For the moment, at least, this Amtrak coach is seat-hog-free.

A single woman should regard every train ride as an opportunity, I once read in one of those “How To Find A Boyfriend” books.

 “When boarding the train, don’t take the first available seat,” the author advised. “Walk through all the cars looking for a cute guy sitting alone, then sit next to him.”

This may well help you meet that cute guy, but it’s unlikely to get your relationship off to a good start.  After all, nobody really wants to give up that extra seat.  Sure, you‘re entitled only to the seat you paid for, not the empty one next to it. But that doesn’t stop most of us from hoping for both seats anyway.

On Amtrak, there are frequent announcements telling you not to hog both seats.  “This is a full train!” the conductor intones. “Don’t put your personal belongings on the seat beside you. We need every seat.” I’m listening to this as I watch my fellow passengers busily piling backpacks, briefcases, shopping bags, and gigantic suitcases on that extra seat, as well as employing a variety of other strategies to ensure that nobody sits there.

On a recent trip from Philadelphia to Boston, the woman sitting across the aisle from me stretched out across both seats and closed her eyes every time we approached a station. Once the boarding passengers had all found seats and the train was moving again, she‘d “wake up” and go about her business until it was again time to feign sleep. Thanks to this ploy, she was able to hang onto that empty seat for the entire trip.

This little trick doesn‘t always work. The entire train car I was in once watched, riveted, as a middle-aged man searching for a seat on a crowded train paused, then began hollering at a kid who was stretched, eyes closed, across two seats.

“Sit up this minute!” he roared. “You’re not fooling me, young man! Did you pay for two seats? You have no right to take up two seats! Shame on you! Sit up now!”

The kid sat up, rubbing his eyes.  “What’s your problem, man?” he protested. “I was only trying to sleep. I would have given up the seat. You just had to ask.”

“Don’t you dare pull that crap on me,” Angry Guy bellowed.  “I know exactly where you’re coming from. You have a lot of nerve!”

The kid stood up, shaking his head, grabbed his bag from the overhead rack and moved to another car. Angry Guy got both seats to himself for the rest of the trip. (For some reason, nobody wanted to sit next to him.)

While I understood his frustration with Sleeping Beauty, that level of rage seemed way out of line.  “Looks like somebody brought a little extra EMOTIONAL baggage on board with him today,“ I remarked to my seatmate.

Most people simply put something on the empty seat and hope for the best. Others go a bit further. I have a friend who swears that nobody will sit next to you if you’re eating a stinky sandwich. Another always removes her shoes and socks, which, she says, guarantees that nobody will want to share her seat. Doing your nails or talking loudly on your cell phone can also do the trick.  One of my coworkers always takes the aisle seat and then puts both tray tables down, creating a little obstacle course for anybody who wants to grab that empty window seat.  Many people plop down in an aisle seat, put their bag on the seat next to them, then plug in their iPod, lean back, and shut their eyes.

Some people, of course, are simply so fat as to require both seats.

I have a friend who doesn’t put anything on the empty seat. Instead, he visualizes a huge, muscular, angry-looking guy sitting there. “You’re saying that you travel with an imaginary friend?” I ask. He nods. “And he’s one scary-looking dude. He does a great job of keeping that seat free.”

Whatever works.

In the most amazing display of seat-hogging chutzpah I’ve ever witnessed, I once saw a man calmly pour a substantial amount of bottled water on the seat beside him as the train approached the station. To each “Is this seat taken?” he responded. “It’s wet, I’m afraid. I spilled my drink on it.“

He failed to mention that he’d done this deliberately. Naturally, he got that seat to himself.

(Later, on my way back from the club car, I was tempted to “stumble” as I passed his seat and “accidentally” douse him with Pepsi. I didn’t.  Two wrongs don’t make a right. And I actually wanted to drink that Pepsi. Plus, I didn’t know what terrible acts of vengeance a man like that was capable of, and I didn’t really want to find out.)

When I board a crowded train, I don’t look for a cute guy to sit next to.  Instead, I’ll often amuse myself by finding the passenger who has gone to the most trouble to avoid having a seatmate, and sit next to him (or her). I’ll walk right past the cute guy sitting alone in order to ask the woman who has piled a hundred million suitcases on the seat beside her. “Is this seat taken?” Then I wait for her to remove all her stuff from the seat so I can claim it. Sitting in a seat like that seems that much sweeter for the trouble I had to go through to get it.

Of course, the delight I take in little exchanges like this might just explain why I’m still single.


You Have the Right (and an Obligation) to Remain Silent

May 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Musings, Newsmakers, Tech

A woman was thrown off an Amtrak train the other day for gabbing loudly on her cell phone for 16 hours straight while riding in the quiet car. I learned about it when my pal Marjorie posted the story of the woman’s removal from the train on her Facebook page, with the comment “Sometimes Dreams Can Come True.” Marjorie and I both work in a public library, where quiet, thankfully, is the norm. In a library, the sounds of everyday life are expected to be muffled. I appreciate a workplace where I can shush folks who talk too loudly and tell anyone who begins blathering on their cell to vamoose.

Asking parents whose kids are hollering to escort the little terrors from the building works for me. There’s a reason the expression is “peace and quiet” and not  “peace and cacophony.”

When I leave work, it can be hard to adjust. I’m old enough to remember a quieter world, where folks didn’t chat through movies or talk on the phone about private matters in public places. Waiting inside the train station last winter, I struggled to concentrate on my book as a man in a suit negotiated a contract at top volume, barking orders and resolving issues while pacing back and forth. Then another fellow pulled out his cell and began an urgent conversation with his girlfriend. As their competing monologs filled the air, I glanced over at the silver-haired man sitting nearby and we both fled the warm waiting room for the icy cold platform. “If it’s a choice between cold and noise,” I said, as we shivered together, “I’ll take the cold.”

When the train arrived, we took refuge in the quiet car. All around us, people read, dozed, daydreamed, talked softly, or simply looked out the window. It’s a delightful place. I would pay extra to ride there. Luckily I don’t have to. (Yet.)

According to news reports, Lakeysha Beard just wouldn’t shut up, despite being confronted by her fellow passengers. Instead, she got angry and argumentative. Conductors stopped the train, the police removed her and she was charged  with disorderly conduct.

I can just picture the wide smiles and happy sighs that resulted from Beard’s being escorted from the train. Nothing as raucous as a cheer. Not from the peace-and-quiet crowd. But perhaps there was a silent high-five.

Of course, some folks take the concept of the quiet car too far. I was once shushed for reaching into a paper bag to take out a sandwich — the bag, I was told, crinkled too loudly! Another time, I was chuckling softly to myself while watching The Daily Show on my iPod when the woman in front of me loomed over the seat.  “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” she hissed angrily, “but you’re driving me crazy. This is the QUIET CAR.”

Let’s face it — one person’s quiet laughter or fascinating conversation is another person’s intolerable noise. Can’t we all just try to get along?  Sure. We can try. But talk on the phone for 16 hours in the quiet car and I’ll be thrilled when the cops remove you.

Hell, I’ll be O.K. if they shoot you. As long as they use a silencer.