Field Notes Observing the Urban Commuter

I commute to work each day. This involves a 40-minute ride each morning and each evening. I like commuting because I figure I’m more likely to make it to the Celestial Kingdom if I don’t drive in Utah. Because the minute I start driving on freeways in the Beehive State, I have no charity, and commit several felonies in my head because Utah drivers are just rude. No, serious.
Anyway, most people think of riding a bus as an experience of sitting between high schoolers and a wino. That might be true for most buses, but I ride an express bus, it’s like those coaches you rent for long trips with senior citizens. The seats are in pairs with a middle aisle between them. They recline just enough to bother the person behind you. There’s wifi and almost all of the other passengers are also working professionals.
But like anyone else, there are seat hogs—people who want to sit by themselves, and who take preventative measures to keep others from sitting next to them. Here’s a list of the strategies employed by Commuticus Workus to get a little extra room.
The Aisle Grabber. This method involves sitting down in two empty seats but instead of moving over to the window, sitting by the aisle. In doing this, the grabber forces anyone wanting to sit next to him to ask the grabber to give them access. Since most people want to avoid confrontation, they’ll just look elsewhere.
The Bag Holder. In this technique, the commuter will sit down and place their work bag(s) in the empty chair to their right or left. Again, this forces another person to ask for access. Note, this tactic has been combined with the Aisle Grabber to great effect.
The Sleeper. This person closes their eyes and pretends to sleep. The lady on my bus who normally uses this tactic combines it with the Bag Holder. Studies have shown that people anticipate how awkward the situation will be when the sleeper wakes up and will just move along. I have noticed that our sleeper “wakes up” and responds immediately if you ask to sit there, defeated by someone willing to ask.
The Saver. This involves someone who is “saving a seat” for a friend getting on at a later stop. It’s amazing how often the friend misses the bus. This tactic is unique in that it’s the one most likely to actually tell you that you can’t sit in the seat. The others will sullenly move their things and let you in.
The Gabster. This one isn’t an attempt to be alone, so much as it is a preemptive move to be left alone next time. In some cases they don’t intend to be alone. The Gabster strikes up a conversation with the person sitting next to him or her. Subjecting them to photos of children, vacations, and pets. Often everyone has marked the Gabster in their heads and will even climb over the sleeper to sit somewhere else.
I mention these because it’s funny to see among adults, people who are ostensibly mature and successful members of society. These commuters often find conflict, just because the route I take is popular and the bus is almost always full.

Every animal has its natural enemy, and the common predator of these types of commuter is the Equalizer. This commuter surveys the crowd when he gets on the bus, looking for one of the aforementioned commuters. Even if half the bus is empty, he’ll slowly walk up to the person trying to keep some space and say, with a wry smile on his face, “May I sit here?”
In the interest of disclosure, I once unintentionally deployed a seat-saving tactic known as the Crazy. I have never seen this method deployed before or since. At the time, I was trying to certify as a climbing instructor. When I got on the bus, I started studying. Once I finished reading about anchor safety, I put the book away and pulled out about six feet of rope to practice knot tying. This was about two minutes after a man had sat down next to me.
The man looked up from his book and stared at my rope. He glanced from the rope to my face, and back to the rope. He grabbed his bag and moved to the back of the bus. I still wonder what he told his family when he got home.


The Malagasy Way

About five years ago, I traveled to Madagascar on business. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I grew up in North America. I served a 2-year mission in France. True, the French weren’t up to the American way of life, but that meant I only saw one dishwashing machine and no microwaves in the two years I lived there—not exactly real deprivation.
But Madagascar was something else. This is a country where the average monthly income is $28—less than $1 per day. Each morning almost every spare place became an open-air market as people sold whatever they could make or raise to provide for their necessities.


Side street just off Avenue de l’independence in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

But it’s this latter quality that I want to focus on. The Malagasies I met were happy people. They did what they had to to get by. They truly lived by the old pioneer maxim, “fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

The handcarts you see in this photo are made from old trucks. The cart is called a “pousse-pousse” from the French word for push. It’s one example of the Malagasy Way.

I remarked on this to my guide. He said, “Yeah. We call it the Malagasy Way.”
“What do you mean, ‘the Malagasy Way’?”
“Well, let’s say you have a car, and one of the cylinder’s in the engine breaks. In America, what do you do?”
I shrugged, “Hire someone to repair it? But that’s so costly, you’d probably buy a new car.”
“Ah, not here,” he said with a smile. “Here, we check the junkyards and see if there’s another one or if we can order it. If so, you’re in luck. But you probably won’t find it, and that’s where the Malagasy way comes in. First you find a large piece of scrap iron larger than the cylinder that broke. Then, you machine that piece of metal into a new cylinder and install it. Your car will work again, probably not quite as well as it once did, but you can get by. This is the Malagasy Way.” He shrugged and tilted his head apologetically. For him, the Malagasy Way was a term of denigration, referring to the substandard performance that followed the repair.
But that’s not how I see it. My grandfather is from Oklahoma and had a whole truck held together by baling wire and duct tape. We had a show called MacGyver that celebrated the self-reliance embodied by a man who could use whatever he had at hand to get the job done. I loved that show.
We even turned MacGyver into a verb. That’s cool, we celebrate an individual who did that. But in Madagascar, this sort of thinking is a way of life. It’s an attribute affiliated not with an individual, but with their national identity.
Here in the U.S. We make so much more money, and when we need something we run to the store or hop online to purchase something that will take care of whatever problem we have. But next time stop a moment and as yourself if you really have to go buy something. Maybe you can find a fix right in your home. That’s the Malagasy Way.