Share Space and Smiles on Caltrain

Riding the commuter train puts us in close contact with one another. How can we get comfortable with a different level of comfort when we are outside of our spacious personal worlds?

Move over buddy...

A young man squashes another man's attempt at sitting next to him, declaring that the seats are too close for comfort. The second man tries to persuade him to change his mind with no luck. Defeated, the man camps out by the stairs. It's an uncomfortable scene, even though it never escalates. Another man huffs at me as I enter a nearly full train and approach the chair beside him that holds his bag. The pregnant pause he takes before reaching towards his bag does not cause me to walk by, and this persistence seems to surprise him.

"Does he interact much with other humans?" I notice myself contemplating. He settles in his seat, hunches over his computer to watch a TV show. He seems pacified enough now.  Whew! As my commuter train riding in the Bay Area has just recently started after a bit of a hiatus from city living, these people who seemed to not be embracing communal living on the train catch my attention. 

My thoughts stumbled on a question, "Are social mores upheld less on the train, if so why?" Then I conjured up images of how these people may live. Most of the train stops are in the suburbs, which afford us space for those Lazy Boys, L shaped couches and California Kings. We can sprawl out, we are so rich in space we can feel alone even with others in the home.

George Carlin did a sketch on our increasing demands for expanding the space we inhabit; bigger homes, cars, and storage spaces. If Carlin, one of the masters in pairing social commentary with comedy spoke about it, than we know it has an element of absurdity to it. We are attracted to space. The commuter train puts "space people" in a world where space is lacking. Then we are asked to share the precious commodity with strangers! Uneasiness seems to follow along for the ride. 

How much space do we need? Is our ample personal space separating us further and further apart from one another? Can we get our spacious homes and still live happily among each other, even side by side, say?  Being in close proximity to people requires that we think more as a group than as individuals. Or maybe it does not require it, it just eventually happens if you get in the spirit of it. A train, unlike being in our separate cars, provides us with shared inevitabilities. If the train is late we all are late, we are not consumed with racing each other on the congested roads thinking that if we just get one car ahead we may beat the next light.  As our destinies are more tied and we seem less as a threat to each other's success (getting "there" on time) we can relax around each other, no?

So this human phenomenon of employing safety nets with the intention of safeguarding individual space on the commuter train has been a focus of my observations.  The plumped jargon hopefully underscores my thought that we should begin to see this urge to build a wall around ourselves as an unnecessary response to living among people. As described above, when people are resistant to the shared experience they are in the midst of they can display less than optimal expressions of humanity. That is to say behaviors that can be classified as rude.  Yet, blame is not the answer. With all the excess space we are now privy to, we need to reprogram ourselves to include living peacefully among people (even in close quarters). We need a reboot if you will, a realignment to encourage us to see sharing space with others as a welcome activity, to not get stuck in our own individual worlds. We can influence ourselves to think in terms of neighborhoods, fellow citizens/commuters, office mates: to appreciate other people's existence. Whether commuting, walking, dining or shopping we can think of each other as fellow community members rather than hurdles or inconveniences to our day's agenda. Life would not be better if we lived in isolation. 

Smile at people, say "hi," make room for one another. I love the saying, "anger is a gift-- you do not have to accept it." The other evening, getting onto the train, happy to escape the chilly rain of Northern California winters and to be heading home, I slid into a four seater section with an elderly woman and a suitcase that was inhabiting the entire four seats. I sat down on one of the aisle seats and quickly found myself on the receiving end of unpleasant grumbling from the woman which she dramatically paired with disapproving facial expressions.

Several stops later, she motioned to me that she would be getting off the train. I offered to get her luggage for her, she accepted and even uttered a thank you. My heart took a small leap! Had I changed this woman's experience with sharing space? Did she notice that having someone near her actually increased her experience rather than diminished it? Would she grumble less next time someone wanted to occupy a seat within three feet from her? I'm not sure, but as I travel along and come shoulder to shoulder with my fellow neighbors I am going to smile, share and maybe even say hi. I am sure I will meet plenty of others who will do just the same.

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Jessica Witenstein-Weaver January 22, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Yes, I wonder if those seats were built for families.
Matt Witenstein January 22, 2012 at 09:12 PM
The concept of space is such an interesting topic to analyze. The way one conducts their own personal notions of space both literally and figurative really challenge not only oneself, but as you have demonstrated, others that enter one's "space", however that may be determined. This is an important topic often discussed in research literature that I am glad to see being discussed in a personal blog forum for people to discuss! Bravo, g/f!
Jessica Witenstein-Weaver January 22, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion Matt and, of course, for your encouragement!
Avni Nijhawan January 23, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Agreed, I've never seen more than one person occupy those two seats unless they knew each other (for those who don't know, the two seats face each other and there's about a foot and a half in between them). I'm always tempted to put my feet up on the empty one.
Jessica Witenstein-Weaver January 23, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Hi Avni, thanks for sharing your observation (and sitting habits :))


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