Don’t sit so close!

My husband and I usually take an express bus from Queens to Manhattan together in the morning, but we get off work at different times so we generally are on our own on the return trip in the evening.

To explain to the non-city folks reading this, an express bus is a higher-priced but convenient commuting option that people living in the outer boroughs can take into Manhattan. It is a nicer bus (usually) than the regular city buses, and people generally expect to sit, because it’s got lots of rows, arranged like a Greyhound Bus. Trips can take over an hour, sometimes more in bad traffic, so it’s no small thing, getting to sit.

Regular riders are for the most part working folks, professionals. They are polite. They line up and enter the bus in the order they arrived at the stop; they don’t talk too loudly; they don’t have their volume set so high on their iPods that you can hear the bass seeping through their earbuds four rows away; they don’t talk on their phones, or, if they do, they are quick conversations letting someone know when they’ll be home.

Of course there are standout exceptions to all of these. For those occasions, I put in my own earbuds and listen to my own music. I try to not let things get to me; I try to stay calm, with varying degrees of success, of course, depending on the particular offense.

On Monday night my husband told me he’d had a crowded bus ride home.  He’d gotten on the bus at an early stop and grabbed a window seat in the back. This is a good strategy to try to avoid being too close to anyone. You often can’t avoid it, but you can try.

The back row fits five. Riders will take the window seats on either side first, and then, as the bus starts to fill up, generally one or two people will sit in the middle of the row. With only four people, there’s a little more room to spread out.

So he was in the back seat, by the window, with one person eventually sitting next to him, another man in the middle and another in the opposite window seat. One of the middle guys had left a big gap between himself and those on either side of him—which is what most people do if they can, until someone needs to sit there, and then everyone shoves over and adjusts and makes room.

The bus made its way through Manhattan toward the Queensboro Bridge, filling up. At the last stop in the city, there were exactly enough seats for every passenger who got on. The last person, a woman, now made her way down the aisle toward the fifth back row seat, the last available space on the bus.

As she neared the seat, the middle guy refused to move over. “You can’t sit here,” he told the lady. “I’m claustrophobic. I can’t have anyone sitting next to me.”

I can imagine the look on my husband’s face. He has a tendency to wait before he reacts, but he finally said, “You’re kidding me! You’re not going to let this lady sit down? Why don’t you get up and let her sit down, if it’s that much of an issue for you?” The guy was intractable and told my husband, “I got on first.”

Since the guy wouldn’t move, no one else in that row could really offer the woman a seat either (I don’t believe it’s a man’s responsibility to give up a seat for a woman, but I was sort of surprised that no one else on the bus offered, given these circumstances.) She didn’t want to fight about it, so she just moved away and stood for the whole trip.

It’s always something on the commute to and from work, but that’s the first time I ever heard someone claim two seats to himself because of claustrophobia. It’s highly possible he was claustrophobic. … in which case his therapist should try to establish some plan to help him deal with a crowded bus . Like it or not, you have to get close to people on public transportation.





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