posted Thu, 27 Jul 2006
Imagine, if you will, an empty subwaycar on the Tube. It’s the first stop at Heathrow. People get on with their luggage. Lots of room. Some of them stand at the end of the car, others sit on the seats that line the side. Two of them – rather scruffy-looking blokes – put their backpacks on the seat next to them.
SH and I get on the Tube here as well. We have checked into an airport hotel for our last night in London and are going into town. I am sitting next to one of the backpack guys and across from the other.
As we get closer to town, the seats fill. The guy next to me takes his backpack off the seat and pulls it into his lap. The guy across from me, a twentysomething with a black eye on the mend, stares into space and leaves his backpack on the seat. It’s now standing room only. There are at least 20 people standing in the aisles, yet his backpack is occupying its own seat. Might I add that the fare is about ₤3, which is almost $6.00.
I watch him, trying to catch his eye. I stare at his backpack, then switch my eyes back to him. I want to see if he will move his backpack. Can he be shamed into it if he knows that I know that he is hogging an extra seat? But he is resolute and does not make eye contact with anyone. Nor does he move his backpack.
When I lived in Miami, I took the train to work. It was an hour and a half each way. I got on at the very first stop, which happened to be at the airport. I would put my briefcase on the seat next to me, knowing I would not get the luxury of an empty seat the entire way to Boca Raton, but hoping I would at best get to choose who sat next to me.
The strategy was to identify a woman who didn’t smell bad or look otherwise obnoxious and move my briefcase when she got next to my seat. If my timing was off, I would be stuck with someone I didn’t want standing next to me, saying, “Excuse me,” (if this was a polite person) or just standing next to my seat and glaring until I moved the briefcase. But no one, absolutely no one got away with using a seat for storage. It just was Not Done.
I wonder what the norm is on the Tube. I don’t know where this guy was from. He didn’t speak, so I couldn’t place him by his accent. Maybe a Brit would never hog an empty seat with a backpack while others were standing. Considering he boarded at the airport, odds are good that he was not British.
But what astonished me is that it was rush hour, with people crammed in for a long ride home, yet no one – not one single person – asked him to move the backpack so s/he could sit. Not. One. Single. Person. He left that pack next to him the entire time he was on the Tube. He got off before we did, so I saw the whole thing.
I almost wish I had boarded later so I could have made him move the pack. I would have, you know. And happily. I didn’t pay all that money to stand while a backpack rode in comfort.
The end of the line
11 months ago