Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mob Rules

When it comes to waiting in lines, I'm a gracious person. I follow the rules, and wait my turn like a good boy. (And for what?) Of course, it's easy to be decent when the rules are so simple. Get in the back of the line, and shuffle forward with the person in front of you. Or when walking on the sidewalk, keep right, but pass on the left. At least, those are the rules out in the sticks. In New York City, where the sidewalks are congested and the subways packed, I find it more and more difficult to walk with crowds and keep my virtue.

For instance, when the subway doors open, and a crowd of people head for the surface, they meet a bottleneck at the staircases. As only two or three people can walk abreast on the stairs, everyone else, approaching from every direction, tries to work their way to the front of the human knot that immediately forms.

What's the appropriate etiquette here? Are we supposed to pretend that the crowd in front of the stairs is like a tightly compacted bunch of lines, stand in our "line", and wait for it to advance? Are you allowed to skip between lines? When they're so poorly defined, can you avoid it? However you look at it, there are invariably more lines than can fit on the stairs, so this is an imperfect solution at best.

If you don't think of the situation in terms of queues, it gets even worse. Are you allowed to proceed forward by any means necessary? You're not allowed to elbow people out of your way, I'm sure, but can you step briskly in front of someone, startling them? Can you always account for what will startle people? Can you brush someone's coattails, or are you requested to avoid all physical contact whatsoever? Do you have to yield to old ladies? You don't have to yield to old ladies in a queue; that's why I like queues.

Or on a crowded sidewalk, can you walk between people taking photos of one another? Can you walk between people preparing to shake one another's hand at arm's length? If you can, how much leeway do you need to leave? If you can't, that's almost six feet of sidewalk cordoned off by clueless pedestrians.

I doubt there are any hard-and-fast rules for crowded passageways. The situation is so fluid and manifold that it would be useless to codify anyhow. But in the absence of rules, all I'm left with is an equation plotting my pace against the number of dirty looks I'm prepared to receive. People who walk defensively; yield to all; and are last in and last out of every situation surely win the hearts of those human obstacles who cluster in the middle of the sidewalk, stroll five abreast, or just stand and gawk. Thinking of the bitter sweet of days that were, it was no trouble to be so considerate. But now? I'm adrift on the sidewalks and staircases of the big city.


Anonymous Claire said...

Unfortunately, if you want to get anywhere in time, I think you have to leave your gallantry and politeness at home. It really is just every man, woman, child, and geezer for himself.

On the other hand, I think it is considered "cool" to be more genteel or laid back. At least I tend to scoff at the people who attempt to jam themselves into an already packed train car. Just this morning, a man was attempting to ride the train Bangladeshi style - half in/half out of the door. He did not make it on...obviously.

When it comes to the stairs, again it depends more on your own personal need to get to where you're going, rather than how many dirty looks you may get or how many grateful (or more likely ungrateful) people you let pass you. I tend to think of it like a game. Look for the openings and go. FUN!

What this long rant boils down to is: I don't really know. Do what you want. Sorry.

12:00 PM  
Blogger pjkobulnicky said...

My particular irritation these days is with pedestrians who not only cannot keep to the right but actually seem to think that one keeps to the left. This is particularly true with the two door entrance where people will force their way in through the left door at the very same time you are exiting the same door on the right. I have also noted that there is a strong correlation with right-handed cell phone use.

Always give yourself lots of time so you can be laid back.

3:43 PM  
Blogger apk01004 said...

I think people force themselves through the same double door as someone going the opposite direction because at least 2 times out of 3, one of a pair of double doors is locked.

If they see you proceeding through an open door, they prefer to take the door that they're sure is unlocked, rather than risk tugging on a locked door. I guess that's considered to be embarrassing.

4:27 PM  
Blogger kaylen said...

personally, i use my level of urgency as a guide. if i'm "in quite a rush" and the banjo is a consideration - i work for adequate standing room and a safe haven for banjo. if i'm "meandering along" with nothing but a book and a bag - i stay a more generous course.

being at the right place at the right time can help too. i'm trying to hone my skills for guessing where the doors will wind up. so i can feel it in my bones, where to stand. like an old sea captain...

10:27 AM  

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