"T" -time Etiquette

POSTCARD FROM BOSTON

My life revolves around the red line. Each day, I take the T from the Harvard Square stop to Quincy Adams, birthplace of our second president, and a tribute to our sixth. I crowd onto the odor-laden train each morning, jostling for arm space with all the other harried commuters, who treat my arm as if it were an encroachment on their personal space and grudgingly tolerate it. The train pulls out of Harvard Square only after it has nearly amputated some last minute arrival's body part with its unforgiving doors, bursting to the seams with the teeming masses of society. For eighty-five cents, you get social integration, up close and personal. At Park Street, the train clears out and I can finally sit down as the train lurches toward my destination, the next-to-the-last stop on the line.

The T is a place where people remain wary at all times, furtively darting their eyes from left to right in an almost-reflexive attempt to gauge the status of the person next to them. There are no formal, verbalized rules of etiquette, just a silent code of conduct governing the vast unknown: thou shall not make accidental physical contact with thy seat mate; thou shall not speak; thou shall not meet another's gaze. To do any of the aforementioned would immediately render one "psycho," society's swift condemnation on deviation.

The other day, a deaf man was plying his trade on the 10 p.m. outbound train, selling miniature screwdrivers with the tags "Please support the deaf with a dollar donation" attached to them. The tag concluded with a disarmingly friendly sketch of the sign language symbol for smile and then a smiley face. The man walked haltingly up and down the train, placing a tool set on each empty seat, but each passenger pretended not to see him or unintentionally flinched as he came near. One would have thought the man contagious--and not merely deaf.

To avoid contact of any sort, the passengers are immersed in their periodicals, which simultaneously serve as diversion, conversation barrier and escape mechanism. All's fair in love, war and commuting. Children use their book bags to reserve the seats next to them, adults use their briefcases to barricade their space from adjacent ones and both young and old huddle near the ends of the rows as if somehow, these coveted seats could offer salvation. In less crowded trains, even stricter codes of propriety are observed. The every-other-seat rule is assiduously practiced as both genders stretch out arms or legs in a not-so-covert attempt to prevent other people from occupying adjacent seats.

Earlier this week, I was part of the 6 p.m. rush to get home. An unkempt man was trying to make conversation with a fashionable woman decked out in a Chanel-style jacket and tailored pants. "You look about fourteen," he said to the obviously forty-something woman. "Do you know that if you were a dog, you would be two?" The woman let out a nervous peal of laughter, uncertain whether the conversion from human to dog years was a blatant attempt to impress her or the tangential musings of a madman. At the sound of her voice, three well-groomed businessmen lifted their heads quizzically and ever so slightly from their periodicals, as if to offer assistance.

She was one of "them," from her well-coifed hair to her well-polished Nikes, and despite, or perhaps because of, the highly stratified world of T-commuting, they would jump to her defense if need be. De facto groups of "us" vs. "them" spring up each day, in each train, on each ride, based upon superficial perceptions such as these.

Nevertheless, such behavior is not wholly without rationale. Although Alexis de Tocqueville once said that Americans had a special predilection for group association, modern advertisers today's news anchors emphasize the dangers implicit in communal trust. In a society riddled with menacing sound bites, the passenger two seats over could very well be a psychopathic killer, a child molester or even a teenager who just dumped her baby in the trash bin.

In Los Angeles, we commute alone, huddling over our steering wheels in our haste to get from one spot to another. Interaction occurs when one or our neighbors drives with us in the express carpool lane, and personal expression is limited to the middle-finger salute. Isolation reigns as our gas-guzzling engines idle away in the triple and quadruple-deckered highways. Yet this summer I have learned that even amidst the teeming throngs of Boston's crowded and forcibly interactive populace, humanity exists no closer and may, in fact, be even further apart.

Abby Y. Fung '99 is spending her summer in Boston.

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