On Labor Day, my family took Metro-North Railroad from Darien to Grand Central Station for an outing in the city. Despite the holiday, or perhaps because of it, the train we boarded was packed. People poured through the aisles in search of seats. As the train started to depart, people settled wherever they could, many by the double doors.
My eight-year-old daughter made her way toward two empty seats, only to discover a large suitcase sitting sideways on both of them. The suitcase owner made a half-hearted effort to move the suitcase from horizontally to vertically to make one seat available for her, then told my daughter “sorry you cannot sit there” when the suitcase would not balance stably on one seat.
There actually were quite a few empty seats taken up by people’s belongings. Seated patrons who had spread out their things were concentrating intently on their electronics or staring into space with surly half frowns that communicated to the rest of the world that they were not to be disturbed. A male Metro-North conductor passed through twice to collect tickets. I’m sure he saw the standing passengers and the empty seats. How could he not? Yet he said nothing. No one said anything. No adults anyway.
Across the aisle from the suitcase owner, a preppy woman had taken up two additional seats to store her tennis racquets, folded up newspapers, and duffle bag. A little girl, maybe five or six, pointed to the two empty seats and said “MOM LOOK!”
You have to love how children unabashedly call out what they see. Instead of acting like she didn’t care about the empty seats like many of us adults were doing, this child was attracting attention to the very fact that stuff was where she wanted to be. And as anyone knows, people matter more than stuff.
The preppy woman reluctantly looked up from her Nook and said to the little girl flatly – not the higher friendlier voice grown ups sometimes use when speaking to small children - “Do you want to sit here?” Knowing the lady was not offering enthusiastically, the girl looked up at her mom. Was it really okay? “Go ahead, honey,” the mom replied. Newspapers and racquets continued to occupy the other extra seat, leaving the mother standing.
Halfway to the city, a different female Metro-North conductor entered our boxcar and righted the situation. She told the suitcase man the blatantly obvious: “If you move your suitcase, then two people can sit there.” He expressed concern about theft. The conductor asked, “Who’s going to take it?” The man, realizing that the double doors were not going to open again until his destination, laughed nervously, “Yeah you’re right. There’s no place to go.” The female conductor then carried his heavy suitcase herself to the standing area by the doors. Looking embarrassed, the man followed her and stood next to his suitcase the remainder of the ride.
As I watched this man, I thought about how there were no winners here. The seated passengers with extra seats may have had more elbow room. But they looked awkward and uncomfortable – shifting in their seats and avoiding eye contact with everyone. The standing passengers had balance issues whenever the train stopped and generally felt slighted and ignored. And all of us, standing or sitting, were a bit saddened and demoralized by the poor commuter etiquette on the train. It was no fun to see people being unkind to others. It was particularly embarrassing because of the children who witnessed our bad manners and saw us do nothing about it, not without the help of the female conductor anyway.
Maybe Metro-North could belt out more reminders on the intercom the way Amtrak does. I’ve often heard the Amtrak conductor say cheerfully, “Unless you’re paying for two seats, please don’t put your bag in the seat next to you!” Public reminders could be just the prompting we need to help us make the train a better place.
Would you rather stand than ask for an empty seat? Would you ask for an empty seat in a five-seater section of a Metro-North train, where three seats face two?