Thursday, January 27, 2005

Seat Vultures Beware

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I've become one of them, the Seat Vultures. Though I used to resent their presence from my place by the pole, or against the back door of the train, I now look guiltily at the commuters standing in the allotted standing space. I used to be a respectable passenger. But when it comes down to it, I want a seat just as badly as the next guy. And now I’m willing to fight for it.

When the doors open, I can sense the greedy competition and anxiety rising in the crowd on the quai of the RER A. The train goes out to La Défense, the small architectural utopia on the outskirts of Paris, a futuristic wonderland, which houses many of the city’s larger corporations. Walking through Les Halles in the morning, the sound of riffraff gives way to the cold clunking of business attire’s solid heels as I approach the entrance. The chorus of the shoes’ sound climaxes in crescendo as business people funnel into the stairwell that leads to the RER A’s platform. The crowd on the quai is silent, docile, and respectable, many passengers reading the daily paper or nodding silently to private music from their headphones. From the sea of heads, each face will occasionally turn to the small television screen hanging overhead. It will announce the arrival of the next train. The minutes wind down, and then it happens: train approaching. The message begins to blink, dumb and slow, aggravating the quickening pulse of the crowd below.

The riders become alert, clutch their bags and press close to the edge of the tracks, but not too far—not over the gray, rubber break in the cement that marks the threshold between a safe distance and a flirtation with death. Everyone understands the seriousness represented by the gray line. Once every two weeks, you hear the announcement from the seemingly uncaring RATP employee: Due to a grave commuter accident, traffic is interrupted in the direction of....

The doors open and reveal what at first seems to be a mirror. The two crowds look blankly at each other, as though they’ve forgotten the other’s existence. One wants off, the other wants on. After a few moments of blinking and pausing, those trapped in front of the door are pushed aside by the exiting passengers. All around, everyone is offended. Without fail, looks of general outrage spread throughout the crowd. Even before all the passengers have exited, when the last few are visible, marking the end of the stream, the crowd on the quai begins to push forward. In a collective shove, we move forward as one. We all want on, but we’re up against the very laws of physics. In the end, it is inevitable: some will suffer bruises from closing doors, and some will have to wait for the next train.

Certainly, it was one of these mornings, finding myself to be an unwilling participant in a male-female-male fantasy sandwich, when I looked over to the people balanced between the seated areas. I envied them. It made sense. There, with only a narrow aisle and the legs of passengers blocking other floor space, they were free. I watched them, unwilling to meet the eyes of my neighbors, the bread of the erotic sandwich. I was sure that by acknowledging their presence I would unleash their desire like characters in a trashy novel. I shuddered and clutched my bag, tensing every muscle in my body with the rocking of the train, leaning on the men as little as possible.

As the train pulled into its first station, I saw it happen. Brilliant. Those standing in the seat section were able to swiftly secure the seats of departing passengers. Unable to believe the simplicity of the transaction, I decided to move. I jumped ahead of the passengers streaming onto the train, and secured a place beside four seats. I stood facing four sitters. These were mine. I blocked them off from the rest of the car. As soon as one of them moved to leave, I dropped into the seat. It was warm.

And so I became a Seat Vulture. Little did I know I wasn’t just beginning to practice a clever tactic, but I was entering into a whole new world of metro politics. The seat vultures are meaner and faster than their forever-standing counterparts. On the quai, they’ve carefully calculated where the doors arrive. They wait until only until the last few passengers are exiting, and make a break for it. They jump sideways onto the train and cut through the crowd to make their way into the seated area. From there, a quick and fateful question arises: Which four seats will be yours? You must be careful. Who’s gathering her belongings? Who looks settled in? Who looks like they might work at Étoile or Auber instead of La Défense?

There’s nothing more heartbreaking than making it in with the best of the Seat Vultures, only to have your four stay stubbornly put for the entire commute. Yesterday, a woman in pink with a scratchy handbag gave me a smug look as she sat down first. She’d shoved me aside in the beginning, without even so much as a pardon. But there is no pardoning in this game. We Seat Vultures know how to recognize one another. There’s no defining characteristic. There are no more females than males. No more young than old. We recognize each other on the quai, before the train ever arrives.

I catch them sizing me up, while the content-to-stand read the morning paper. And then we inch closer to the gray rubber line and brace ourselves for the opening of the doors.


At 8:28 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

I am from a relatively small community and don't have the luxury of riding public transportation to work everyday. Your post reminded me though of my trip to Chicago where I got to ride subways, trains, and buses each day (what an experience). Sounds like the train you ride is just like the ones in Chicago - or maybe the culture of public transporation is just universal.

Your post was really great though - I felt like I was on the train with you, smelling the people around us and feeling the warmth from their bodies. I can even her the noise.

As for being a Seat Vulture - more power to you - at least your ride is more comfortable!

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sean used to talk to himself and act crazy on the broad street line train in philly to keep away the 'real' crazy people...I'm not sure if it was more of a protection for him or his fellow riders. ;)

-Michelle D.

At 6:32 AM, Blogger Michael said...

You write really well. Very much better than Hamlet :D

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Virgil the Pilgrim said...

Yes, I am fan, definitely bookmark you. I love France and political incorrectness in all its forms

At 8:50 PM, Blogger noricum said...

A friend once told me that if you don't want to share your seat on the bus, drool. A little bit of drool hanging off your lip is enough that no one wants to sit beside you.

I haven't tried this out, though.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Emily said...

You might have not tried it out, but I have. Oh yes. I'm a big fan of the drool method.

My friend Sabine and I rode around Europe on overnight trains for a few weeks, and when we boarded the trains, we used to search the train for an empty compartment. When we would find one, we had three methods to scare off potential cabinmates at the following stops. (The cabins held six people.)


1. Play guitar loudly and sing. (Not good company for sleepy passengers. Potentially dangerous, though, because it could attract hippie-types and wayward musicians.)

2. Keep a bottle of wine on hand. Time it perfectly so that when the door opens, you are poised in mid-swig. Give the mouth a big swipe with the sleeve and look at the door-opener. This causes them to say, "ohh--sorry!" and close the door.

3. This is where the drooling comes in. Lay across all six seats. (It helps to have belongings strewn everywhere as well.) When the door opens, open mouth wide, drool, and generally look as unattractive as humanly possible.

Works every time. And you'll enjoy a wonderful night's sleep. (Unless you break the air-conditioner, or get accosted by the ticket-checker. But that's a whole other story.)

At 10:15 PM, Blogger noricum said...

Good methods! I like the third, because it can be done while asleep. ;)

I tried taking an overnight train from Hannover to Vienna... the stupid ticket checker kept coming to check my ticket and passport. :P


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