Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Highly Scientific Study

One of my first experiences with courtesy in New York occurred the summer before last, roughly a year before I moved to the city. George, the wife, and I were all on a car, and I was trying to juggle the baby, the stroller, and myself, all while dealing with the rocking of the train. An older Jewish woman, seeing my difficulty, offered me her seat. Obviously, I couldn’t take this lady’s seat, but she insisted. Searching for an out, I tried to get my dear wife to take the kid and sit down, but she smirkingly decided that she really felt like standing. Torn between exhaustion and courtesy, I glared at my beloved as I took the Jewish lady’s seat. I felt like a total heel.

I’ve since learned to get over it. There is a clearly-defined hierarchy for seating on the subway and, as a healthy male in his mid-thirties, I am definitely at the bottom of it. On those rare occasions that I get to sit down, I almost inevitably find myself getting glared at by all the people in the area. It’s not a pleasant sensation. Luckily, I always pack a book.

There is, however, a loophole: when I am carrying my daughter, I shoot right up to the top of the seating list, just below pregnant women, people who are near death, and ladies who are carrying their kids. This doesn’t mean that people will give me their seats; as with so many other things, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and people are loath to give up a seat to a healthy white guy. That having been said, I’m surprised at how often George snags me a seat. Best of all, when I’m carrying her, I can sit down without getting glared at by everyone in my vicinity.

I have also discovered that there is a definite hierarchy of the giving. In other words, some people gladly give up their seats, while others refuse to budge under any circumstances. I have also found that this hierarchy breaks down into clear gender and ethnicity lines. Here are the results of my exhaustive six-month study:

I am ashamed to say that, generally speaking, the rudest group is white males. Not only do they not hesitate to push people out of their way to grab seats, but they don’t actually seem to even see the people that they are shoving. It’s kind of embarrassing to watch. I will also point out that, in my effort to elevate la raza, I try to give up my seat if I see anyone who needs it more than I do. I am not alone in this; I find that white males in their early thirties, particularly those who wear sweaters, not suits, often seem willing to give up their seats.

The best group, far and away, is Hispanic males. Regardless of age, these guys tend to hop up at the slightest hint of need. A little taciturn, they seem to become almost gallant when it comes to helping out people in trouble. In fact, my friend Joey, a self-described Nuyorican, has told me that he never sits down on the subway, as he always ends up giving his seat away, and the bouncing up and down is hard on his knees.

Another great group is Black males, particularly ones in their teens and early twenties. I remember the first time that my wife experienced their extreme subway courtesy. She called me that evening to tell me that some thuggish guys in gangsta clothes had given her a seat. Later, she reported, another group of young men cleared the crowd on the icy stairs and helped her carry my daughter’s baby stroller out of the station. I was blown away at the time, but have since come to realize that these guys are just amazingly courteous. Also, they tend to be more talkative than the Hispanic guys.

After white men, the second rudest group is black women. With younger black women, it's pretty simple: they stubbornly refuse to give up a seat, no matter how badly another person seems to need it. Older black women, on the other hand, tend to be downright shameless about it. Even when I’m clearly holding Georgia, if I'm sitting down, I have to endure the angry stares of women who are standing. Sometimes, they’ll even glare at me after they sit down, as if they're holding a grudge. It can get a little disconcerting.

The rest of the subway riders are all somewhat mediocre. Asian men rarely give up seats, but they have neither the angry defiance of black women nor the aloof snottiness of white men. Frankly, I think they’re just totally clueless. The same goes for Arabic men, who often seem inclined to stretch out over three or four seats. White and Hispanic women are pretty good, and will sometimes give up a seat. Older Jewish women, of course, are outstanding, even if they are inclined to humiliate you into sitting down.

Oy veh.

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