The next seat over

This is the second in a three-part series about seating and meeting.

Yesterday I took a look at what seems to be a fairly common avoidance of others when we choose seating in public transportation and other similar situations. Although I didn’t mention it at the time, I think that one of the major reasons for this aversion may be that we would prefer to be left alone from a conversational standpoint—that is, we’d like to make it from Point A to Point B without being bothered by the necessity of talking to others.

It’s sad that we think of it that way.

Once again, though, I include myself in that. There are many times throughout the day when I’m more than happy for the opportunity to enjoy a good conversation with others, but there’s something about traveling even a short distance that brings out my inner hermit.

For the most part, if I have somewhere to be, I view the commute as something to get over with and out of the way. I don’t imagine that there are many people who like to ride the subway or the bus; most no doubt do it because it is the most convenient way to travel between two points, and many may have no other option. And if I’m on my way somewhere, my mind is usually focused on what I need to do when I get there, or what I need to say, or whom I need to see.

You know. Me things.

And the natural byproduct of this self-focused self-in-transit is an annoyance at any distractions. Make an announcement over the loudspeaker: distract me. Carry on a spirited conversation on your cell phone: distract me more. Try talking to me: distract me most.

I may be overstating the case a bit, but I think you know the feeling. And it only gets worse the longer the distance and the less control you have over your seat. Long bus or airplane rides are the worst. The seats are frequently assigned, and on a crowded bus, empty seats are always located next to someone. There’s almost no avoiding it…

… and God forbid you end up next to a talker.

My sister did, once. She responded politely to his first few remarks, then turned on her iPod after the flight had taken off. He kept talking. She took out a book and began to read, iPod still intact. He kept talking. She put the book away again, reclined in her seat, turned the iPod’s volume up, and closed her eyes (presumably in order to go to sleep, or die trying).

He kept talking.

If you’ve seen Airplane, then you know that my sister is lucky to be alive after such an experience. Certainly, it’s a situation in which most of us hope we don’t find ourselves, and perhaps you’ve been there, too. If so, I’m sorry.

Just to state the other side of the case, however, I’d like to tell you about a recent experience that so pleasantly surprised me that I was forced to reconsider my entire position on the issue. In fact, it was my initial inspiration for this short series.

Traveling home for Thanksgiving, I had a number of long rides ahead of me due to the number of stops I was attempting to squeeze in. After a bus ride from Boston to New York for an overnight stay and a morning meeting, I was to fly to Chicago for an informational interview before finally taking the train up to Milwaukee from there.

Things started out badly when I arrived at Boston’s South Station approximately 27 seconds after the friendly bus people had given my seat away to someone else.

Not one to be easily daunted, however, I did what any other courageous traveler might do: I waited meekly in line until the next outbound bus arrived.

When I finally boarded this second bus, I sat down almost without looking. The bus was sure to be full, and I planned to take advantage of the onboard voltage and free wifi to catch up on a few e-mails before passing the rest of the journey in happy West Wing-induced oblivion.

This, however, was not to be.

The power outlets on the bus were not working, a fact of which our driver was apparently not informed until the bus was en route. He announced over the loudspeaker that he could not alter the situation while the bus was moving, but that he would pull over as soon as possible and restore power.

He pulled over in Times Square.

Without the power, of course, the onboard wifi was all but useless (a fact someone might also point out to AirTran, by the way), and so there I was stuck on a four-hour bus ride with nothing to do.

Then the hunger began to set in.

Meanwhile, the girl sitting next to me must have noticed from something I was writing that I was a law student. I had hardly noticed her when I first sat down, but I certainly noticed her when she began to ask me questions about my experience with law school and, in particular, the application process. She was a college student attending school in New Hampshire, on her way home for the holiday just like me (albeit with a few fewer stops).

It was at least half an hour before I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to like talking to people while traveling.

I kid you not: despite my annoyance at the malfunctioning electricity and my increasing hunger, the miles to New York disappeared more quickly than they ever have before or since. We talked all the way there, on subjects ranging from sorbet to sororities, and it could not have been a more enjoyable conversation. Now, instead of being upset about having to take the later bus, I was glad that I had ended up not only on that bus, but in that seat. In fact, upon reaching the city, I realized that we had actually lost an additional hour in traffic—but I had gained a friend.

All because of the next seat over.

I’d like to close by explaining what I learned from this experience and the step it inspired me to take soon afterward. But that’s a story for another day.

How about tomorrow?



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3 responses to “The next seat over

  1. Avi

    You neglect to mention an extremely important detail here – what the girl looked like. Pardon me for being cynical, but I wonder if the situation would have “flown by” had it been not the girl, but her middle-aged father asking questions about applying to law school.
    And by the way, did you end up a with a phone number at the end of this trip?

  2. You are cynical! But you make a good point. There are all sorts of factors that can make a conversation pleasant.

    Truly, though, the quality of the conversation was such that I’m sure time would have passed quickly regardless of appearances; in any case, the bus was fairly dark.

    Or, to paraphrase one who wrote far better than I, I judged the whole experience not by the appearance of my interlocutor, but by the content of the conversation.

    As for the phone number, a gentleman never tells.

  3. Kay

    Don’t forget about the pretzels! =)

    It makes me happy to read this. This was not a common experience for me either, so I’m happy that you decided to write about it on your blog. It’s quite flattering that one of your inspirations for starting this “mini-series” of posts was our lovely conversation.

    I’m going to read the rest of your blog. I’m interested to see how this ends.

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