Just after 9 on a weekday morning, I stepped onto a southbound Red Line train at Belmont. No seats were available, so I stood, staring at the seated 20- and 30-somethings who were staring at their phones.
I was feeling somewhat miffed that none of them thought, “Here’s a woman at least three decades older than I am. I’ll give her my seat.” What happened to manners?
That afternoon I walked the three-quarters of a mile home from Mariano’s carrying a six-pound watermelon in 81-degree heat. My thoughts returned to the el ride. Why should someone have given up a seat to me when I can walk three-quarters of a mile carrying a watermelon? If I can walk two miles a day, why can’t I stand on the el?
My age shouldn’t entitle me to a seat if I’m still able-bodied, should it? As for being female, I don’t still believe in such chivalrous acts as a man’s holding a door for a woman or walking on the curb side of the street. What’s different about an el seat? If the woman is wearing heels (I haven’t in years), that’s her choice, not his concern.
Do I give my seat to a person obviously older than I? I can’t remember facing the choice. I hope that I’d offer it to a pregnant woman, a disabled person, or someone carrying a load.
I was that someone carrying a load a few days later. I was returning from the home of a friend who had given me three large bags of plants. The el was filled with young people going to the Cubs game (it was obvious from their T-shirts). I struggled to hold on to a pole and the bags while trying not to hit anyone with the bags. I didn’t get a seat until someone near me got up to exit the train.
This time, I felt justified in being miffed.
The flip side of this issue is whether I would decline an offer of a seat when I'm not carrying anything. I never have, opting for comfort, but if I’m going to be consistent (see above reasoning), I probably should.
It’s interesting to read online debates among people in Chicago, New York, D.C., Boston, and London about who should get a train or a bus seat first. These are among the most interesting comments:
“Of course being young and in good shape I get a lot of stares when I have a seat and the train is crowded. Stares from people a decade or two older than me, females, and others who think they are more worthy of the seat. 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 then fine, I'll give them the seat, but otherwise I'm not budging!”
“As a regular, healthy, youthful adult, you’re basically the least deserving person for getting a seat.”
“There are some days when I don't mind giving up my seat and I will offer it to anyone who looks like they might enjoy taking a seat . . . but there are days when I've got my own stuff to deal with . . . and although the pregnant women who are expecting me to give up my seat can’t see it from looking at me, I might need the seat more than they do.”
“Anyone who clearly looks like they can handle the challenge of standing for 20 minutes, regardless of sex, can suck it up and fight like the rest of us.”
“If someone looks like they are struggling, I give up my seat. So even if someone is young and able bodied, if they have a bunch of bags or look tired/uncomfortable, I will just stand up.”
“It's often hard to tell when someone is ‘less able bodied’ than you, and better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than speak up and confirm it. If you need a seat, it's on you to ask.”
“The polite thing to do is not verbally offer your seat, thus implying that the person you're offering it to is weak or in need, but simply standing and unobtrusively moving out the way.”
“What I try to cultivate is more of a change in attitude. It’s not so much that one particular person needs my particular seat, it’s that there are people more in need of seats than I, so I should be standing. It keeps me from having to evaluate potential seat-takers on an individual basis.”
A rider listed the priority order for seats on the New York City Subway: disabled old person, disabled person, very pregnant woman, child, regular old person, not very pregnant woman, regular adults.
The part up to “regular old person” sounds about right to me if you define "disabled" as anything that would make standing difficult.