Thursday, October 7, 2010

Take a Seat

In today’s New York Times (sub. req.) John Edger Wideman has an Op Ed entitled The Seat Not Taken in which he talks about being a black man on the Acela train between New York and Rhode Island, a train trip he takes a couple of times a week during the school year.

Over the last four years, excluding summers, I have conducted a casual sociological experiment in which I am both participant and observer. It’s a survey I began not because I had some specific point to prove by gathering data to support it, but because I couldn’t avoid becoming aware of an obvious, disquieting truth.

Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip.

I am a white woman but I can verify Mr. Wideman’s sociological experiment.  Because I did the same experiment on Southwest Airlines over a three or four year period.  But I called it my “Secret to Getting a Good Seat on Southwest Airlines”.

A number of years ago my sister and I had season tickets to Chicago’s Lyric Opera and I travelled to Chicago about once a month to see operas with her.  I would fly up and back on Southwest Airlines (in those days you could get $30 one-way tickets – you couldn’t drive for that price).   Usually the flights were crowded and usually the plane was pretty full when I got on because St. Louis was the last stop before Chicago.  Often there would be only a few empty seats on each flight.  Southwest Airlines planes had three seats on either side of the aisle and it was open seating.   So, only if you were lucky would you end up in one of the few rows where there was an empty seat between you and the other person in your row. 

I preferred not to rely on luck.  I preferred to rely on the racism of others.  Every time I got on the flight I would look for a black man, preferably one sitting in a window seat (I like the aisle), who was sitting in a row that was otherwise empty.   I would nod to him and ask if the aisle seat was taken.  He would say no.  I would sit down. And both of us would wait as the plane filled up and latecomers searched for empty seats.  The middle seats would begin to fill in but the seat between us would remain empty until the very end.  If the flight was full, eventually someone would take that seat between us.  But if there were a few empty seats left on the flight we would end up with the empty seat between us. 

I didn’t think of this strategy by myself.  I noticed it one time when I just happened to choose an aisle seat and wondered why no one was picking the middle seat next to me.  So the next time I experimented.  

I still use this strategy when I fly Southwest. And, yes, sometimes I feel a little bit guilty that I am benefitting from the racism around me.   Sometimes I wondered what the man in the row with me thought about it.  I suspected it was probably a mixture of annoyance and joy at not being crammed three to a row.  I never felt comfortable asking.   But here’s what Mr. Wideman says:

Of course, I’m not registering a complaint about the privilege, conferred upon me by color, to enjoy the luxury of an extra seat to myself. I relish the opportunity to spread out, savor the privacy and quiet and work or gaze at the scenic New England woods and coast. It’s a particularly appealing perk if I compare the train to air travel or any other mode of transportation, besides walking or bicycling, for negotiating the mercilessly congested Northeast Corridor. Still, in the year 2010, with an African-descended, brown president in the White House and a nation confidently asserting its passage into a postracial era, it strikes me as odd to ride beside a vacant seat, just about every time I embark on a three-hour journey each way, from home to work and back.

I admit I look forward to the moment when other passengers, searching for a good seat, or any seat at all on the busiest days, stop anxiously prowling the quiet-car aisle, the moment when they have all settled elsewhere, including the ones who willfully blinded themselves to the open seat beside me or were unconvinced of its availability when they passed by. I savor that precise moment when the train sighs and begins to glide away from Penn or Providence Station, and I’m able to say to myself, with relative assurance, that the vacant place beside me is free, free at last, or at least free until the next station. I can relax, prop open my briefcase or rest papers, snacks or my arm in the unoccupied seat.

But the very pleasing moment of anticipation casts a shadow, because I can’t accept the bounty of an extra seat without remembering why it’s empty, without wondering if its emptiness isn’t something quite sad. And quite dangerous, also, if left unexamined. Posters in the train, the station, the subway warn: if you see something, say something.