On the Subway: Scenes from the Daily Life of Etiquetteer, Vol. 15, Issue 53

Etiquetteer is one of Those People who travel daily by Public Transportation. And as any Daily Traveler knows, one becomes familiar with the persons and habits of other Daily Travelers. And their eccentricities, often to be borne stoically (how many more stops?). and very very rarely by changing seats or cars.

Over the years Etiquetteer has become used to seeing a mentally challenged man riding the subway. He has a neutral expression and appearance, and his clothes and hair are not perhaps as clean as they might be. If a seat is free near the door, he will sit down and ask the person sitting next to him to help him out with some money. If no seat is free near the door, he will stand in front of someone seated (usually a woman) and ask repeatedly in his soft voice if he can sit down because of his "sore back." It would be difficult to call him aggressive because his demeanor is so quiet. Intrusive is probably a better word. Clearly he has a routine with details that need to be met to maintain his equilibrium, and as much accommodation as possible is helpful to ensure a smooth commute for everyone in the car.

Yesterday, Etiquetteer saw this man board the subway and ask a young woman for her seat, which she gave him - which was a very nice and Perfectly Proper thing for her to do. And that should have been the end of it. Unfortunately, another woman, now sitting next to this man, took exception and decided to make a scene about it. "Oh my Gawd," she yelled in her Bawston accent, "she was sittin' theah!" Now a subway car is not the place for loud conversations - or shouldn't be - so you can imagine the effect. "She was sittin' theah!" Etiquetteer could barely hear the Nice Young Woman mumble "Oh, it's all right," and as often before the man said something about his "sore back."

Anyone in earshot could tell that, to this Angry Woman, a man asking a woman to give up her seat was just about the Worst Thing in the World. With a loud harrumphing "You wawk inta this cah like it was all yahs," this angry woman hunched herself back into an angry silence, unavoidably in close contact with a total stranger she'd just criticized very publicly. Her noise-cancelling headphones would have protected her from this man's usual appeal for money, had he dared to ask her.

Etiquetteer cannot quite understand what that Angry Woman expected to happen after her outburst. Did she think that, having asked for a seat, this mentally challenged man would apologize and return to standing? Obviously she was unfamiliar with this man, his condition and habits. She clearly didn't want to be sitting next to him - but not to such a degree that she was going to give up her seat. Etiquetteer would like to think that she was embarrassed by her outburst.

What can be learned from this experience?

  • First, things are not always as they appear.
  • It's bad manners to criticize the behavior of others in public, especially total strangers.
  • People feel strongly about violations of codes of behavior by other people. Etiquetteer would like them to treat their own behavior violations more seriously.

Travel safely!