Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question comes from a local man who's unsure about when he should offer up his seat on the subway.
Dear Native New Yorker,
I am a 22-year-old healthy year old male. Like everybody I take the subway everywhere and of course at times it is jam packed, but there are days where I am able to find myself a seat amongst all the sweaty commuters. Of course being young and in good shape I get a lot of stares when I have a seat and the subway is crowded. Stares from people a decade or two older than me, females, and others who think they are more worthy of the seat I fought so hard for.
Yes, I am still young, yes, I can probably stand longer than they can, but honestly at the end of the day I am exhausted from work just like everybody else and choose to act like I have no idea why these people are giving me the look. I do have some rules; if the person is obviously over 60 or pregnant than fine, I'll give them the seat, but otherwise I'm not budging! Does that make me a horrible person? Is there a guide to who exactly I should give my seat to?
A native New Yorker responds:
Congratulations on your youth and vigor! Health is a blessing to be treasured, and it doesn't last forever. You think you're exhausted after work now? Wait ten or fifteen years! That's when the hangovers really get bad, work begins to involve heavy responsibilities, and afterwards you get to go home to your second job, parenting, which is even more punishing than the first!
I don't mean to make fun of you: all youth is callow and ignorant and that's not your personal fault. I can also tell that you're a good person, because you're at least asking yourself what the right thing to do is here, and at least occasionally giving your seat up to others who need it more. Some people don't even do that—many a ride I've seen a pregnant lady, basically in labor, near collapse, as a whole bench of sturdy-looking commuters pretend not to notice her. Monsters!
A young Jake Dobkin refuses to conform to mainstream train seat behavior. (Courtesy Private Jake Dobkin Collection)
But not all cases are as morally obvious. Take this recent post by Jen Chung, where she got into a fight with an old lady on the M72 bus over whether or not her kid was entitled to a seat. You might think the answer is clear, but this post got 460 comments, each arguing a different case! I read each of them, and after long and careful meditation, I see no reason to change the quote I gave her, on The True and Complete Order of Preference for Who Gets a Seat First On Mass Transit:
The NYC order of precedence is: Disabled old person, Disabled person, Very pregnant woman, Child, Regular old person, Not very pregnant woman, Regular adults.
As a regular, healthy, youthful adult, you're basically the least deserving person for getting a seat on the whole car; on a crowded train it's probably not even worth it to sit down, because basic morality will compel you to get up almost instantly for a more disadvantaged person. Think of this a small downpayment on the future kindness you will receive when you are old or sick, or when science figures out a way to get men pregnant.
There are a few edge cases that I didn't have time to expand on in Jen's post, but which I would like to address here. These are subtle situations that bear a bit more discussion:
a) Hidden disabilities. Here I'm talking about your diabetics and hypoglycemics, your chronic fatigue sufferers, people who have a hysterical fear of touching subway poles, etc. If someone asks you for your seat (or just gives you that look that means the same thing), assume it's something like this. Why? Because academic psychologists have determined that asking is "extremely difficult, even traumatic," and no one would do it if they didn't actually need the seat (or were a certified psychopath, and do you really want to say no to someone like that?)
b) Companions for the disabled or guardians of children. This was the situation Chung was in. The moral law says you, as a healthy individual, have to give up your seat to a disabled person or child, but says nothing about giving up your seat for their companion. Unless the person requires the helper to sit next to them to maintain verticality, the companion should either stand, or, in the case of a child, put the child on their lap. Altruism has limits, and in this case the limit is one seat.
c) People carrying heavy stuff. In most cases, you should vacate your seat for them. Isn't that the famous quote? "Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy load"? No? Well, even so, I think you should still move, just to keep the person with 10 bags of groceries or the tourist with the improbably large amount of luggage from blocking up the doors and aisles, and generally inconveniencing everyone else. Again, someday you may be in the same spot, and you'll be glad when the wheel of karma turns.
d) For women, if you are a man. Toss-up! On the one hand society oppresses women and forces them to wear uncomfortable shoes as part of a complex scheme to objectify and disempower them, and at the end of a long day, you're probably more able to stand up than they are. On the other, chivalry is in some sense a reification of this same institutional sexism, and some shoes are more comfortable than they appear. I say go with your heart!
In all these cases, err on the side of generosity of spirit and give up the seat if you see someone who looks like they need it more than you. Remember: it's easy to be generous when you're well-rested, but the true measure of your selflessness is how you act on the train at rush-hour after a long day at work. The Buddhists have a slogan for this: "If You Can Practice Even When Distracted, You are Well Trained." Take that to heart! Or, if you really want to sit, take a cab.
N.B.: No one is perfect! Even bodhisattvas have bad days, and there is no one among us who hasn't once been too weary to vacate the seat when the circumstance demanded it. So if you see that happen, don't collect resentments or act nasty, like that old lady did to Jen on the bus; act with compassion and humility, and gently remind them of the satisfaction that comes with doing the right thing. Most New Yorkers will accede with only minor grumbling.
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