7 October, 2009

Move Your Blooming Arse!

This is a gripe about a trip with a few inconveniences. The Amtrak train that I was on was heading its peaceable way to Boston from Philly when its engine conked. As a woman with a near psychotic schedule, I was not overly perturbed to be given an extra hour on what I assumed would be a marginally delayed train. I smiled – and typed – through the walking-speed crawl toward New Rochelle, and unhurriedly gathered my belongings to transfer to the train headed to New Haven in New Rochelle. On that train I met a man, a father of two named Michael (one of my two favorite names, the other being Andrew), here visiting from Melbourne, Australia, who was a good conversationalist (we touched on the American health care system, public education, writing, Neil Postman and Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism), and easy on the eye. What was there to complain about? But I had to get off at New Haven, and there my sang froid began to rip and tare.

First, with a hundred milling passengers who were, by now, delayed by about an hour and a half, came an announcement that we were not to board the next train headed to Boston unless we had tickets for that particular train. Did I listen? Hell no. I had a reading to get to in Boston and there was no way I was going to miss it. So, board I did, along with a few other brave souls. Then I had to stand from New Haven to Boston and, unlike in Sri Lanka, there were no open doors to make that less claustrophobic and even thrilling. It was just a business of standing on a train with other disgruntled people, most ill-equipped by girth or height or age or type of baggage to squat or lean with any degree of comfort. I tried my best to dispatch a headache by alternating between trying to finish the book I had been cogitating over, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, listening to Pitbull and Lou Bega, and texting my waiting friends in Boston. And third, I was forced to consider – with increasing outrage – all the able-bodied types who continued to warm their seats while old ladies and old gentlemen were struggling to stay upright while holding onto their luggage and whatever solid supports they could find.

People, it isn’t chivalrous to get up and give your seat to the elderly, pregnant women or children, it is basic human decency. It should be a hard-wiring in your brain that boots your arse out of your seat without you even having to think about it. It happens a thousand times a day in a thousand other situations around the world. It happened all my life when I lived in Sri Lanka. I was sometimes the benefactor, sometimes the one who reaped the comfort of another’s grace. I never once, in all my years in Sri Lanka, ever saw a pregnant woman, an older person of either gender, or a little child stand on a bus and the buses were invariably crowded.

So what is it with us here in America? What makes it possible for the limber of body and the, hopefully, blessed of mind, make eye contact with other human beings who have a need we can meet, register that fact, and then turn away or back to whatever it is that preoccupies us? To our laptops and iPods and books on tape and books on paper and newspapers and whatever else? I have to believe that it is our collective agreement to disengage from each other in this every-man/woman/child-for him/herself culture we have constructed around us. We don’t simply not care, we don’t see. We don’t connect unless there is something “in it” for us.

Somewhere toward Boston a seat opened up as one of the afore-mentioned individuals reached their destination. The seat was closest to me, and although I assumed it would be okay therefore for me to sit in it – by now there were only three of us standing and all of us were about the same age – I turned to the woman next to me and inquired, politely, “do you want to sit there?” This is what you would do back home in Sri Lanka. You would ask, and the other person would graciously say, “oh no, you take it.” Whichever one of you got the seat, the other person would at least feel acknowledged as having had a similar need. But I was not home in Sri Lanka. I was home in America. The woman said, “Oh, yes, I was going to sit there.” I went back to my book, leaving her to push past me to get to the seat which she occupied for all of about ten minutes before she had to get off. Getting up she told me “you can have my seat now.” I said nothing. I continued to stand the rest of the way. I wanted nothing to do with such people, nor with the places in which their sorry bottoms had rested. It was idiotic, I know, it proved nothing and only increased the fatigue that had by now enveloped me on this journey that had already lasted ten hours, several of those on my feet, but it made me feel holier-than-thou. Which was about all there was left to feel until I could reach Boston where a flurry of friends – most of them descendants of immigrants but an equal number born here – could restore my faith in basic human goodness.

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6 Responses to “Move Your Blooming Arse!”

  1. Sara Stowell says:

    The answer, in a word or four? Global capitalism and Middle classyness. I know, sounds too easy… but the same was true in El Salvador. Not only did people offer their seats, if the buses were too crowded to make getting up and down possible, as they often were/are, then people offered to carry your baby, or your book bag, and those items were handed over with a grateful sigh. I have seen people hanging off buses, on the outside, hand off their bag to a willing carrier inside, and then get it back. No problem. Ah, but this was during the war… so adversity breeds solidarity, BUT – after the war, immigrants started to come home, remittances flowed in, not making people rich, mind you, but enough so they could waste their money at some transnational fat food place (no, I didn´t forget the s)… and crime rose, people began to doubt their neighbors, rather than trust them, and all of a sudden, no more offering seats as common practice, or carrying babies and bags… Don´t get me wrong, I am NOT romanticizing poverty. But capitalism makes us greedy about everything, and we covet our neighbor´s wealth, their seat on the bus, and their happiness…. so, as they say in the World Social Forums, Another World is Possible…

    Sorry you had a crappy ride to Boston, Ms. Ru. Hope your reading was able to remind readers about basic human kindness.

  2. Ammon says:

    I’ve ridden my share of trains with kids here in the states, and I can state unequivocally that able-bodied men will almost never give up their seats.
    I’ve had much better luck with able-bodied women, quite of few of whom presumably have had the experience of riding the train pregnant.
    Another related pet peeve is able-bodied people with minimal luggage using elevators in train stations and airports. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to wait for multiple elevators with my stroller and two kids so a group of 30 years olds with one bag apiece can take the elevator…

  3. Courtney says:

    I won’t get into the horrors I’ve faced in Germany on the trains and elevators, except to say that even being enormously pregnant is not a good enough reason for able bodied people to give up their seats to you or to let you go ahead on the elevator.

    I knew this while pregnant so stood on a lot of crowded trains. When a friend of mine once asked a man to give up his seat for me, the guy she asked turned out to be unable to stand without a cane (whoops!). Only when he gave up his seat did someone else realize what was happening and give hers to him. The whole situation made me wonder what happened to the thoughtfulness of others…

  4. Ru says:

    Sara – I think you are right though why we humans tend in this direction I don’t know. I recall a statement from Michael Moore in SICKO where he says Americans fear their government and we are taught to individuate in some way. But how can that be true of all of us immigrants? Do we just pick that up along with information about the Yankees and Waco, TX? In Sri Lanka, too, like you said, people hand over bags and baggage – and that in a country where we were also simultaneously worrying about suicide bombs and unaccompanied packages! Amazing.

  5. Makus says:

    Sounds like yet another place to use my new favorite quote:

    “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I don’t like the taste of dog.”

    As for why a nation of immigrants would “forget” this kind of courtesy, my theory would be that, being a nation of immigrants, because we can’t assume that others share our values, we collectively revert to the lowest common denominator for deciding how to organize civic culture, which is of course survival of the fittest. Another way of saying this — I think that what maintains the graciousness you describe in SL is that the average SL can assume that those around him/her share a range of basic social expectations. Not so in a country with with lots of different cultures.

    What about the American fetish for forming lines? Many other cultures resolve the problem of dealing with bureaucracy by simply crowding toward the front, shouting the loudest, relying on personal connections. And that’s OK within that culture because its expected, but appears quite rude in US culture.

    Another explanation for the seat problem is diffusion of responsibility — the same reason that 30 people can observe someone in need of help and no one does because everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility. It’s why CPR courses tell you that when you are rescuing someone, you should point to a specific individual in the observing crowd to “CALL EMT” rather than issue a general request. I’ve also read studies that show that this phenomenon is less pronounced in more collectivistic cultures.

    Also Americans have less experience dealing sharing limited resources — they just have not developed smooth social norms around what to do in that situation.

    Anyway, none of this is an excuse. Not to give up your seat for someone old or pregnant is just rude. And that second “lady” in your story sounded horrible.

  6. foxhound dog says:

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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