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.


One thought on “Field Notes Observing the Urban Commuter

  1. So funny! The drivers here are … something. My daughter actually said to me “Mommy, you’re not a bad driver… but you’re kind of a mean driver.” I tried to explain that it wasn’t my fault, that other people were horrible drivers and I just had to yell at them (even if they couldn’t hear me).

    It is funny how grownups are as awkward as teenagers when confined to a relatively small space together (elevators are another fun way to make people REALLY uncomfortable).


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