I got on the MBTA’s red line at Park Street last week, heading for Alewife station. 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.