Metro Rail As A Habitat: A Preliminary Study

The animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz said that animals did not so much have human traits as that humans displayed traits common to many animals.  This comes out for me when I’m on Washington’s Metro trains, especially in rush hour.

If you’re one of the thousands of people who ride Metro regularly, you know it’s primarily the personalities of your fellow travelers that set the tone for the commute.  Sometimes it’s a fashion primer, as when I realized that sundresses, flip-flops and pearls were this year’s warm-weather combo. Always it affords rich opportunities to observe human behavior.  Some of these behaviors recur, and I have broken them into types.  See if you recognize them.

One of the most common types is the pole hog.  This person, increasingly rare as the old subway cars are changed out, keeps anyone else from getting a grip on the central pole near the doorway.

The Pole Hog may also qualify as oblivious.

Sometimes the pole hog is merely leaning on the pole; other times he or she is wrapped around it as though practicing for an exotic dance.  If it’s a leaner, it is often possible to squeeze your fingers between the body and the pole, placing your knuckles in the most efficacious position.  It is even possible that the person is oblivious (more on this later) and that a polite, “Excuse me, would you mind if I held on here?” would rectify the situation.  I’ve never seen anyone approach the exotic dancer, though; probably for the same reason no one approaches a nose picker.

The pole hog can engender the balancing act.  The balancing act occurs when someone either cannot achieve a handhold or is adamantly using both hands to hold reading material.  This person, often good-sized, stumbles, staggers, sways, and bumps other people repeatedly, always muttering, “sorry.”  Unfortunately they are rarely sorry enough to correct their stance for better balance or to get a grip on a handy seatback.

Balancers are a cut above the bull in the china shop, though.  The bull gets up, usually from a window seat, always on a packed train whose cars are rocking and swerving between stations, and tries to cut a swath to the door.  This means other people have to let go of their handholds, come out of their balancing stances, and try to remain upright while the bull squeezes by.

Just keep your grip in the face of the bull.

Last summer, I saw this happen between Courthouse and Rosslyn.  The bull got up, forced people to squeeze to one side or another while the subway car lurched drunkenly forward.  Finally she reached someone who would not let her pass.  “I’m sorry,” the person apologized.  “I’m afraid if I let go, I’ll crash into someone.”  At which point the train rounded the infamous Rosslyn curve and the bull crashed into the apologist.  “Like that,” the apologist said calmly.

Now, the bull would undoubtedly defend herself by citing the door blocker.  This person finds the doorway such a comfortable place to lounge that he or she will not move out of it to expedite the exit of fellow passengers.  In rush hour, there are usually two door blockers, and if you have begun to picture sausage production, you are very close to the reality of getting off a crowded train.  Door blockers do not realize that if you step off the train, you can get back on at most stations (except Metro Center in the morning, where drivers often don’t allow enough time for everyone to get off, much less for anyone to get on).  The door blocker is closely related to the salmon, who tries to get out of the doorway by moving farther into the car, thus slowing exiting passengers even more.

People exiting the train often leave behind the occupier. This is the person who occupies the outside seat, thus forcing fellow passengers to ask to sit down and then to crawl over the occupier’s body to do it.  Rarely, occupiers are men with very long legs who don’t comfortably fit in the seats.  Often, they are “getting off at the next stop.”  More often than not, they just want the aisle seat, like the woman who made someone crawl over her at Rosslyn because she “needed to get out soon.”  She was still on the train at Metro Center.  Occupiers are closely related to the sprawler, who either physically takes up two seats or places a brief case, purse, coat, or shopping bag on the next seat.  The sprawler usually assumes a sullen or defiant expression that dares anyone to ask to sit down.

While the sprawler knows someone else would like to sit down, the oblivious person has no clue.  The oblivious are the able-bodied people who sit in the seats reserved for people less able than themselves.  This would not be a bad thing if they knew enough to get up when a shaky older person, someone in a cast, or an amputee boarded.  They don’t, usually because they have become absorbed in their reading or simply zoned out.  There are several subsets of oblivious, including women who repeatedly flick their hair in your face; lovers engaging in intimate activity; and the loud conversationalists, who don’t realize that everyone is not interested in their vacation, fight with a friend, workplace backstabbing, health, or philosophy of life.

I haven’t even touched on the snackers and drinkers. The drinkers swig water and soft drinks, and carry cups of coffee with sip lids, whose sole purpose is to allow coffee to escape the cup when the train lurches.  Snackers, for some reason, seem mostly to be women.  This may be because men don’t carry purses from which to sneak potato chips, candy, nuts, and other edibles.  If it’s a man, he’s got a big sandwich and is eating it openly.  With most of the open eaters, if you lean over and ask if they know there’s a hundred dollar fine for eating on Metro, their eyes widen and they say no and stop eating.  The surreptitious eaters know the rule. The really blatant eaters, whose message is one of entitlement and disregard, are most likely to leave smashed french fries and litter behind. As an old southern saying goes, “Some people should have their heads pinched off when they’re born.”  Unfortunately, while these folks do resemble plant life in some ways, I doubt a new head would have been less addled. At least they aren’t driving.  Who knows how they would interpret traffic laws?

Which brings me back to behavior and my general affection for Metro.  Where else could I see a young woman dressed in a full slip (beige, above the knee), pale blue corduroys, red trainers, and a zip-front sweatshirt and take in the reaction of other riders as they observed this odd get-up and then realized what it was?  It’s almost like my college anthropology course, just a lot cheaper by the hour.

The salmon swims on...

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