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Empty Seat, Anyone?

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Riding on a subway is like living in a co-op. Or is it? Subways are full of people from all walks of life – young, old, white, black, male, female – all crowded together in a place (a train, an apartment building) until they reach their destination. And on the journey, they must get along.

I thought of this as I boarded a crowded train to work carrying a bulky package. Now, as any regular subway rider knows, the train at rush hour is no picnic (I always marveled at people like my mother, who said she enjoyed riding the train because “It’s quick and gets you there, 1-2-3”) and finding a seat is a rarity.

In any event, I had my package and saw what looked like an empty seat. There was a young woman apparently sleeping in one seat – her eyes were closed – and the empty one was next to her. Empty, that is, except for her handbag. When a young man saw me with the package, he graciously tried to help out. He tapped the woman on the shoulder.

“Miss,” he said. “We need that seat.”

“There’s no room here,” she said, her eyes closed.

My advocate persisted. She resisted. Until finally, he blurted out, “Boy, what a bitch.”

She seemed startled at this criticism, and I took advantage of her surprise by forcing my way into the seat. “Sorry to disturb your slumber,” I quipped.

She glared at me and we rode together – bag, man, and woman – for two stops before she got up and exited at 96th Street. However, not without a parting shot at my advocate: “People who call other people bitches have their own particular problems.”

Communication? Cooperation? Confrontation? Certainly elements of co-op living. And just because you’re neighbors, that doesn’t mean you get along. I remember a dispute over noise that took place in my 22-unit Upper West Side co-op some years ago. A fifth-floor owner complained to me – as her neighbor and as board president – about the noise being made at night in the apartment above her.

“I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “They’re always clomping around up there, opening drawers, and making all sorts of racket.” She said she had talked to them – a nice young couple – and asked me if I’d talk to them, as well. The husband, a board member, told me that they were trying to be quiet but that their downstairs neighbor was a little over the top. “She was hitting her ceiling with a broom, telling us to be quiet,” he recalled. “But we weren’t making any noise.”

This certainly seemed strange – although noise can be a funny thing. I remember being disturbed from a deep sleep once by my father picking up something from the table next to my bed. I sat up and complained to him about the noise, saying, “Why don’t you bang cymbals in my ears?” Then he showed me what he had picked up: it was a wedding ring. The noise it had made was slight but had somehow been exaggerated in my sleep.

In any event, the fifth-floor/sixth-floor noise dispute died with a whimper and not a bang. The fifth-floor owner phoned me one night at 10 and said, “They’re at it again, opening drawers and clomping around. Can you come up here and listen to what I have to put up with?”

I dutifully went upstairs, sat in a chair, and listened.

And heard nothing.

“They stopped,” she said. “Wait. It’ll start up again.”

So I waited. And waited. And waited. For 20 minutes. But no noise.

“They must have heard you were coming.”

Although I thought she was nuts, I smiled politely and said, “Well, at least it’s quiet now.”

Courtesy, politeness. That’s part of co-op living. But is it part of the subway? I looked around me, with people jamming into the train, holding open doors so they could squeeze into the car, talking loudly, pushing and shoving, refusing to give up seats to people on crutches or with packages…

No, I guess the parallel breaks down when you start looking at it. In a co-op, you can have a say on whom you “ride” with (i.e., vetting your potential neighbors) and, unlike a train, you are responsible for the upkeep of your building.

So that parallel bites the dust. But, hey, thinking about all this did have one positive: the subway ride was over before I knew it. Empty seat, anyone?

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