Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Unspoken Rules

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In this warm spring season’d day in mid-December, I decided to take the bus up through Harlem rather than the train so as to maximize my time above-ground, watching the world go by. It was a bus-related distance anyway: Too far to walk but still a single-seat ride.

I wasn’t disappointed. Every minute interplay was a small diorama of urban living, dictated by a numerous, intricate and ever-shifting list of unwritten, unspoken rules that we all obey so as to live with one another peacefully. You already know some rules right off the bat: On a five-seat public bench, for instance, the first person to sit takes seat 1, the second person takes seat 5, and the third person takes seat 3. To disobey this informal rule is to invite an informal enforcement of that rule, through the side-eye, eye-rolling, the sucking of teeth, an aggressively wide stance, et cetera.

But the rules get so very complex. For instance, even while waiting for the bus, I watched as a man in track pants and headphones bobbed and circled in place to his music, mouthing the words to the hip hop lyrics in his own personal reverie. He had mapped out the limits of social acceptableness to a fair degree: Just how loud he could be, just how much space he could allot for his little dance routine. While shuffling through his pockets, he dropped a dimebag of weed. I saw this, but he remained unaware. There were no cops around, and I don’t care about a bag of weed, but I didn’t want this guy to either lose that weed, or be implicated lawfully of having possessed it in the first place. How to react? You can’t just say “HEY BUDDY, YOU DROPPED YOUR DIMEBAG!”

So, I broke a minor social rule and stared at him. Everybody knows when they’re being looked at; it’s like a sixth sense. He came to attention through this social intrusion and looked back. I switched my view to his feet, and he followed my gaze. He wised up and returned the dime bag to his pocket, like a cat that had tripped and continued on as if nobody noticed. He couldn’t acknowledge my having witnessed such an event, and I couldn’t acknowledge that I had witnessed anything either, so we went back to ignoring one another while waiting for the bus.

The bus itself is situated in a strange social rulebook. Most buses in American cities are for people who can’t afford a car, so tend to weigh heavily on the lower end of the economic spectrum. Nobody wants to admit to being there, so nobody acknowledges anybody. In New York, however, mass transit is the norm, not the exception, so economics aren’t a major issue. What is an issue, on the other hand, is able-bodiedness. For any long distance, the subway is far more preferable, as it’s faster (due to not being in traffic) and cleaner (due to largely not tracking in the elements), but relatively few stops have elevators and as such are always down and up at least two flights of stairs. Furthermore, where subways may be inconvenient for short distances, younger people are more likely and able to walk or bike to their destination. Thus, buses tend to favor on the upper end of the age spectrum.

So, on this Sunday afternoon post-church, there were quite a lot of well-dressed old people, who had already by circumstance and necessity formed their own specific social compact: I watched as a woman with white hair gave her seat up to a man in a walker, only to have a woman in salt-and-pepper hair give her seat up to the white-haired woman. As there were too many old people and not enough seats, they had, on the fly, extended the “Please Offer a Seat” law (it actually comes with a $50 fine, but is rarely enforced) to something that kept in the same spirit but was a bit more pragmatic.

To even have something like this happen, it means that everybody is always watching who comes on the bus, doing the social math as to whether they should address those newcomers, and react. This little parable is repeated for every stop. A couple with two toddlers, for instance, came on the bus and located a free seat. First, they decided among themselves who got the seat: It’d be too crowded with both children sitting on a parent’s lap, and in the object of fairness they wouldn’t favor one kid over the other, and thus both parents stood while the children shared the seat. This lasted all of two blocks, for on the next stop the father pulled both children off the seat and offered it to an old woman who had gotten on the bus. The woman politely declined, so he sought the attention of another old woman behind the first one and offered her the seat.

Of course, all through these ministrations on this crowded bus, strangers had to make room for all the moving around and repositioning, so as to fairly and equitably reapportion all the seating to those most deserving, all while keeping a cool aloofness so as to maintain relative privacy for each person on the bus. “Move to the back of the bus” and “please offer a seat to the elderly/disabled” doesn’t explain even half of the metrics involved in “it’s socially acceptable to hover uncomfortably over this person for the time being so as to let this elderly pensioner past such that she may take the seat offered by another elderly pensioner, who had come equipped with a socially-acceptable excuse for getting up for a social equal, as she was ‘getting off in one stop anyway.'”

It was a dance. It was one very intricate, choreographed dance, with a participation rate of nearly everybody, improvised on the fly. The things we do just to live in society…

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