There are two ways of riding the Metro. You can ride blindfolded--say, reading a newspaper or simply doing the zombie thing. Alternatively, you can open your eyes and observe subtleties of human nature, in a gently rocking crucible. I recommend this.
Note the action near the turnstiles around 9:30 on a weekday morning, when rush-hour fares are about to end. Note who is standing, fare card in hand, prudently awaiting the final tick of the clock to save 50 cents. Note who is barreling head down through the turnstiles, oblivious to the clock. Hint: The parsimonious ones are almost always carrying pocketbooks. But they are almost never under 25.
Paradoxically, persons unabashedly reaching into the recycling bin to grab a free newspaper are quite often under 25. I conclude that it is not the frugality that appeals to them, but the sedition.
On the train, observe what happens when a sixtyish woman walks onto a car that is standing-room-only. Keep your eyes on the seated men. You will see an occasional half-hitch, an impulse to rise that is suddenly stifled and stilled. Many men are happy to give up their seat to an elderly person of either sex--they seem to revel in the nobility of the gesture--but women of late middle age present a problem: Is the mere act of offering a seat apt to be considered an insult? You can almost feel their discomfort.
Notice that in a train where the seats are half-filled, most people have chosen to sit facing the train's destination, a choice that is apparently kinder to the equilibrium. But the people who have elected to face in the opposite direction are more likely to look out the window, where the scenery is slower and more comprehensible as the action recedes. The folks in the first group are pragmatists, the folks in the second group are poets.
Among the last seats to be filled are the ones facing inward, toward the aisle, even though these are the seats that afford the most legroom and best ease of exit. Yes, half of these seats are reserved for use by the old and handicapped, but the other half are not; their unpopularity suggests that our desire for comfort is defeated by our distaste for human interaction. In these seats, in a crowded car, one is likely to become proximitous to the bellies and behinds of standing strangers--not to mention that on stops and starts, inertia may push you bodily against the person beside you.
(Actually, my friend Marc points out that the very, very last seat to be filled is usually the inside seat of the bench neighboring the inward-facing seat, at right angles to it. This inside seat is so hemmed in that to vacate it, you must actually interact with the persons seated around you, perhaps even with actual conversation. Unthinkable.)
My most recent observations involve people sitting in the inward-facing bench seats. My findings are incomplete, as yet. Join me. I'd be grateful for your data:
Find the appropriate sideways bench, and observe the person sitting there. Don't be obvious. Don't stare, because it will ruin the experiment.
It may take some time, but eventually the person will notice someone else staring at him, intently. What happens next will depend on the age, and the gender, of both persons involved. But invariably the body language is telling.
There might be outrage, or hostility, or even flirtatiousness, but there will always be something discernible, and it will continue and intensify until the person in the bench seat realizes that the other person is scoping out not him, but the Metro map behind his head.
There's a moment worth waiting for.
The Insider's Guide needs you. Submit items (accompanied by address and daytime phone) via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org); fax (202-334-5587) or mail (Insider's Guide, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). No items promoting personal business interests accepted.