Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sleepers, Squeezers, Lurkers, and More: Interacting With Subway Riders in Their Natural Habitat

In a city that values personal space, we sure spend a lot of time in close contact with one another, particularly on mass transit. I personally will only board a packed subway car if I am running late and have to get somewhere immediately, otherwise, I'm perfectly content to scope out the platform, note where the doors open, and wait for the next train (this behavior makes me a camper, as we will discuss shortly)—if I have learned anything traveling via mass transit, it's that there is always another train.

Perhaps believing that my commuting strategy had lulled me into false beliefs about the success of my commuting strategies, the subway gods decided to remind me of the value of personal space recently. The 2/3 subway lines were down, which meant that I—as well as hundreds of other people who normally take those lines—was forced to find alternate routes. Having resigned myself to missing my regular LIRR train, I opted to follow my rule of letting the crowd go before me. And as usual, it worked. (Or seemed to.) A train came, and everyone piled in—they would have ridden between the cars if the practice hadn't been outlawed. Just to be safe, I let another train roll through the station. It was moderately full, but boardable, but I was already off schedule at this point, so I figured I might as well wait for a more comfortable experience. Not too long after, surely enough, a quick peek down the tunnel revealed the dim glow of the headlights of an oncoming train.[Image Left: Looking for the train down the tunnel. The dim glow of headlights mean it won't be too much longer.]

The train arrived and it was virtually empty, so I boarded and stood by the door because I only needed to go three stops or so. Well, what I hadn't banked on was how crowded the trains must have been when they got to the stops after the station where I boarded. So if the trains had been merely crowded by my judgment at my station, they were virtually unboardable by the time they got to subsequent stations, which meant that people had no choice but to wait—until the train I was on arrived, and they flooded the car. I'm a petite person, so I quickly found myself pressed against the glass. Sideways. Under someone's armpit. Yeah. I had a pang of claustrophobia and had to remind myself that I would be getting off soon. I closed my eyes and breathed (though not too deeply) and tried to subtly adjust myself into a slightly more comfortable position. For those of you who don't live in an area where mass transit can get this chaotic, to help you fully appreciate this experience, I've included the following Seinfeld clip where Elaine Benes gets stuck on a train on her way to a wedding:

Despite leaving a facial imprint on the glass door, I could understand why the train was crowded—service interruptions and delays aren't fun for anyone. I doubt anyone on the trains that afternoon had an enjoyable ride. But what about when personal space is invaded when there is no reason for it?

Last week, while having dinner with my good friend James, we got to swapping commuter stories. We were talking about large backpacks, and prime spots on the train (he prefers to stand by the door instead of taking a seat—consequently, I have categorized him as a door dweller), when the conversation turned to people who seem oblivious to others around them—the ones bump you with their backpacks, blast their iPods, occupy multiple seats, etc. On his way to meet me for dinner, James fell victim to a close-stander. Surely you've heard of close-talkers (which, interestingly, is another Seinfeld phenomenon)? Well, close-standers are oblivious to personal space boundaries. They will stand inches away, their hair in your face, knocking your book or personal device out of your hand, and they do this without any need for it, and without seeming to know they are doing it. Close-standers do this when there is more than ample space on the train to accommodate everyone. Perhaps they are used to traveling only during rush hour when close-standing is mandatory; perhaps the trains and buses they ride are always crowded; perhaps this is their way of getting human contact—no one really knows, but close-standers sometimes create uncomfortable situations for those around them. [Image Right: A door dweller stakes his claim. He could also be a packer, but his manuevering to remain in the door caused me to classify him as specified.]

Before we go on, it might bear discussing the different categories that subway riders can be grouped into. All sorts of characters ride the subway and, like any good cast, they know their parts well:
  • Campers. Commuters who know where to stand so that the doors open in front of them, enabling them to board the train firs,t are campers. They get very annoyed when non-campers, or lurkers, try to push past them and board before them. There is definitely something obsessive about campers, but they are relatively harmless. If they do get bypassed somehow, they may be annoyed, but they follow the crowd—or re-position themselves and wait for another train. [Image Right: Campers board a train during morning rush hour.]
  • Close-standers. People who stand "thisclose" to you despite the fact that it is not crowded and everyone can be afforded some personal space. It is believed that close-standers are oblivious to their needless violation of personal space. If space permits, you can try moving away from a close-stander, but you do want to be aware that close-standing could mask sexual harassment, which has also been on the rise on mass transit (more on this later).
  • Door dwellers. These are travelers who prefer to stand—in the doorway. They don't rush for seats, but strategically place themselves in the doorway, which is considered prime real estate on mass transit systems, to minimize having to shuffle around the subway car to accommodate the ebb and flow of passengers. Door dwellers usually also know which side of the car to stand on to minimize having to move out of the way to permit people to exit and board the train. They will grow extremely irritated if a new boarder tries to usurp their position and they have also been known not to step aside to let people on or off the train for this reason. Do not attempt to secure the door position if a door dweller is already in place, but assert your right to move past him or her.
  • Lurkers. These are people who try to bypass the efforts of campers and door dwellers. They want the positions these people have managed to secure, but lack the resources and abilities to claim them on their own, so they wait for opportune moments when they can sidle by. They will wait for the last minute before boarding the train in an effort to oust the door dwellers. They also try to come in from the side to bypass campers. Lurkers are very good at what they do. However, they do tend to be older travelers, so perhaps it's a travel strategy: if older travelers don't plot in this way, they may get shuffled out of the way. If you think a lurker is making a move that will result in your comfort and hard work being compromised, stand your ground. They don't like to make eye contact, so looking at one squarely in the eyes is often enough to deter their behavior.
  • Packers. People carry large bulky items with them. In all fairness, though, packers need to be distinguished from folks for whom the subway is their main method of transportation and who really have no other option for transporting bulky items. The term packer is therefore reserved for those people with super large backpacks they refuse to take off when they board the train. If you encounter a packer, you would be best advised to practice defensive maneuvers. I have been hit by a large backpack, and it's quite a weapon. Recently, I witnessed a packer on the train whose backpack was easily 50 pounds or so. In turning around, she easily cleared a swath of passengers from her vicinity. They were not happy, and she met their protests with protests of her own.
  • Pole huggers. The folks don't want to share pole space with you—they don't care if you fall down or into other riders when the train stops suddenly because you had nothing to hold onto. These folks can be identified by their possessive nature toward the pole: They will crook an arm or elbow—sometimes even both arms—around the pole, or lean against it, and effectively block anyone else from using it for support and stability.  Pole huggers will relent as more people crowd around them and reach for the pole. Securing a place at a pole is simply a matter of showing the pole hugger you do not recognize their ownership of the pole. [Image Right: A pole hugger leans on a pole in the center of the car.]
  • Sleepers. Early morning trains are where you can find the sleeper species, although they have appeared at other times as well, and seem to be straying from their natural habitat as the economy worsens. It's one thing to close your eyes until you get to your destination, another thing to fall so deeply asleep that you head, and soon your entire body, is leaning on a stranger. The best thing to do if you encounter a sleeper is to prop him or her back up. If the sleeper continues to fall on you, you are then entitled to poke or prod the person and inform them that they are sleeping on you. This is New York, however, so be prepared for the person to just stare at you. 
  • Sprawlers. Oh yes, the sprawler category. Sprawlers tend to be men, but women can sprawl too. It's not enough that they have a seat, they feel the need to sprawl out so that no one can sit on either side of them. They do seem to prefer end seats, which minimizes their impact. The best way to combat a sprawler is to say "Excuse me" and then take the seat. The sprawler may grumble, but will relinquish inches allowing you to sit. Be advised, however, that the sprawler will continue to sprawl, so it will still be an uncomfortable experience. [Image Right: A spawler prevents anyone from occupying the seat next to him.]
  • Squeezers. Squeezers will try to fit into a seat when they cannot fit. They do so anyway, and rather than perch on the edge until more room becomes available, they insist on sliding all the way back to sit "properly" in a seat causing people on either side extreme discomfort. There is no known effective way to deal with squeezers—though I suppose you yourself can stand.
We could go on listing categories extensively, but I think we have the basics. Now that you have an understanding of the cast of characters, let's return to James' story. The train was relatively empty, and so he was able to claim the preferred domain of door dwellers. When the train pulled into a subsequent station, the doors on the opposite side of where he was standing opened and a woman boarded. She crossed the aisle to stand in front of James with her back to him. And slowly the space between them seemed to diminish. According to James, "she was all up in my business!" As the train rocked back and forth, she bumped him a few times. James didn't confront her, but he was perplexed—with all the space available, it seemed ridiculous that she would crowd him as she did.

So I proposed a few suggestions to James to explain the woman's behavior:
  1. She was a door dweller too.The problem with this argument is that there were other doors available, so she could have claimed one as her own.
  2. She was attempting to flirt by pressing her rear into him. James nixed this idea because, while was uncomfortably close, she didn't seem to intentionally bump him. Also, James believes that it would have just been a weird way to pick someone up. She never once made eye contact with him—it was as though she didn't know he was there.
  3. She was a close-stander. We seemed to come to an agreement on this point. James felt her behavior was unwarranted, but she also seemed clueless—classic signs of a close-stander.
Riding the subway is a unique social experience. As mass transit, it is used by people of all cultures and backgrounds, and undoubtedly people have different notions of what are socially acceptable interactions. However, quite a few of the categories above can create uncomfortable situations as you find yourself in close bodily contact with strangers as a result of their actions. An alarming trend that has grown out of this is the rise of sexual harassment on the subways. In close quarters, people are groped, and according to the comments in response to the campaign, been ejaculated on and rubbed up against. One emptier trains, or when riding late at night, riders have reported men exposing themselves. It's clearly a jungle out there. The Holla Back blog provides a forum where people can share their subway harassment stories—be warned if you visit the site that some of the stories are quite explicit. The MTA launched an anti-harassment campaign, but it remains to be seen how effective it has been.

[Image Above: Anti-harassment ad on the subway.]

This particular type of unpleasant subway interaction aside, many of the offenses attributed to these categories seem to stem from a brand of social indifference. People don't care because their interactions with one another are largely minimized by the cushion they carry in the forms of iPods, PDAs, smart phones, and even books and magazines. But many of these categories simply represent commuting strategies. I am certain that campers and door dwellers have been around for some time. Packers may have emerged as a result of current economic times. But it is also true that the norms of social behavior are changing. Of course there are those who simply feel that others should accommodate them. I have observed this with packers and sprawlers and squeezers in particular. The nature of social interactions is changing as a result of new technology and media. It is yet unclear as to how the social order will evolve.

Have a category to add to the list above? Want to share a subway story? Join the discussion below!


  1. Grrrr, damn ppl messing with my door spot. I had this hippo push me out of the car yesterday. I was scared she was gonna trample me.

  2. Nice categorizations. Members of every category have been around at least since the 70s, when I started riding the trains, and probably since trains (buses, stagecoaches, etc) began.

    In 1978 or so, a friend of mine was on a crowded subway when some guy started humping her. She stamped her foot down on the nearest foot--not even sure if it was the perpetrator's foot--and screamed, "STOP THAT!"

    On this incredibly crowded subway, there suddenly appeared a ring of empty space around her as everyone moved away from the "crazy lady."

  3. Thanks, Wendy. Yes, I agree—these categories (and others) have likely been around for a long time. I'm sure sexual harassment was a problem on the early horse drawn trains as well.

    Great story! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Got to say, I've come across as a sprawler since 2004. But, ya know, those other signs are worth noting, too. I've been doing this since I was in a fire and the circulation in my legs went to hell. Both legs are screwed up but the left is definitely worse. Some days my left arm ain't so great either. And, as the signs say, not every disability is visible. And as the "spoons" parable explains, I have a certain budget of flexibility that I can afford every day before the pain gets serious. Which some days it very much does.

    So I put my leg on a seat.

    And I pull it off when a train gets crowded. And hope that the seat will clear soon or that I'll be getting off soon. Sometimes I shake my lowered leg to try to keep circulation going. Which people also take as rude. Or just crazy.

    But, interestingly, I've noticed some people will get on a train where there are still plenty of seats and, seeing a "healthy, substantial man" who is taking two seats "for no good reason" will make a point, usually with a truculent look on their face, of shoving themselves onto the seat my leg is on. Fwiw, about one in five of these then pull out bibles and start reading them furiously. I have seen this in New York, Portland, OR, and the Bay Area. It's quite consistent.

    What almost none of them ever do is meet my eye or say anything to my face. Though the bible thumpers periodically mumble something insulting under their breath about "rude people". When I respond and start to explain, they reliably get very huffy. When I offer to start showing them scars they get offended. What they rarely do is apologize, let alone move.

    The exception? Tourists. Who *will* do the shoving thing but will look terminally embarrassed if I get the chance to explain and will usually apologize and start asking questions about the accident.

    So what's my point? As G&S say, things are seldom what they seem. Or if more than seldom certainly not always. Worth keeping in mind.

  5. Rustin, thanks so much for adding this reminder to the discussion. We certainly don't know what may be going on in people's lives, and we'd definitely be wrong to assume. It's extremely important that seats are available for people who need them, and I don't advocate for anyone "policing" the subway—though if it means helping a pregnant woman, or an elderly or disabled person get a seat, I think others should speak up.

    The responses you get are interesting though: why can't we adjust our behaviors as the context unfolds? Why do we need to cling to the original assessment?

  6. Don't forget the "wide stance sitters", most often overweight people who sit on the subway and spread their knees wide to block use of the seats to either side of them. They are bending over their phone to play some game or another, and must spread their legs, or have their bellies pressing against their thighs.

    There's also "Seat Sliders", who slide over to leave you with only the seat next to the homeless guy, or slide to block you from taking the seat on one end of the bench just vacated by someone else.