Where will I sit?
I lurch down the bus aisle, hoping to find a place to park my butt before I land on it. Where will I sit?
A glance shows me there are no empty rows, so that’s out. Now I have a new question: Who will I sit with?
I scan my options.
There’s the middle-aged white woman with frizzy hair and shopping bags, who look as if she wants to talk. Maybe not.
There’s the 20-something bleached blonde with nose ring, Goth eye make-up, short shorts, and a tattoo on her thigh: Though she be small, she is fierce. I think not.
There’s the old Asian guy, talking to himself or, maybe, to the mother ship. Definitely not.
There’s the dark-eyed, dark-haired, dark-skinned, 30-ish loner guy, brooding over unnamed crimes. Pretty sure I’d be an imposition. Pretty sure anyone would be.
There are the young lovers, entangled on the mid-bus sideways seats. There’s room to sneak in there, but there’s no emotional space left on that bench.
There’s the old Chinese woman in an old-fashioned head scarf, staring impassively, nay, grimly, straight ahead. Next.
There are the three skinny black teens, one each in each of the next three rows, long legs sticking out into the aisle. Are they together? I can’t tell. Lost in their smartphone screens, refusing to make eye contact, their body language is clear enough: “Don’t come in here, lady.” I hear ya.
There’s the guy with close-cropped hair, now going seriously grey, who smiles at every approaching female. Is he a friendly person, a guy on the make, or an off-duty axe-murderer? Yikes.
And there’s the vaguely Middle Eastern woman in a designer-scarf hijab, skin-tight blue jeans, bling sandals with heels, and expensive sunny-day glasses, staring resolutely out the window. Not welcoming, but not overtly hostile.
I will sit here.
As I settle in, carefully avoiding any thigh-to-thigh contact with this stranger, I think about my selection criteria. After several such trips in the last several weeks, several such decisions, I think I now know what I’m looking for, even though the decision process is too quick to be entirely conscious: I’m looking for someone like me.
Someone my gender. Or my age. Or my ethnic group. Or in my style of dress. Or of my white-collar occupation. Or with my level of hygiene. Or with my superficial degree of mental health (I may talk to myself, but I notice when I do). Or with my general world view (I’m not all saintly acceptance, but I’m not pissed off all the time, either).
I note that, given the choice, I choose a woman, not a man: not wanting to be seen as inviting anything. That’s a rule going back to my teen years. (Of course, at my age, the emphasis has shifted a bit: Now I don’t want to be seen as thinking I’m inviting. Sigh.)
But there’s more. Given the choice, I choose a woman close to my own age, not a kid. A reasonably happy looking woman, but one who also looks as if she’s happy not to talk. A white woman, not a woman of colour. A woman of colour with her hair showing, not a woman of colour in a hijab.
Such, it seems, is my subconscious calculation of the degrees of similarity. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just noting what it is. I feel a little bad.
Then I consider again. Over the last several weeks, I have observed others boarding the bus, seeming to pose and answer the same question: Who will I sit with? Eyes darting, they seem to be looking for something, too.
Folks with sleeve tattoos blow right past little old me and choose a seatmate with multi-coloured hair. Black and brown people somehow end up in the same row. Chatty middle-aged white women sit side by each.
Age. Colour. Gender. Lifestyle. The basis of the choice, the order of the factors, must vary by person, of course, but I don’t think I’m imagining the calculation: “Who is most like me?”
But as the bus fills up, as the options narrow, a seat—any seat—is at a premium. Now the calculations change: restricted choice makes everyone freer, oddly enough. Now the choice of seat implies no invitation, of any sort. Now it says nothing about perceived or assumed similarities.
And so Goths sit silently next to mah-jong fanatics. Spiked hair sits beside sweater sets. Men and women, strangers to each other, share seats almost unselfconsciously. Square white female seniors (ahem) and cool black male students sit together, staring impassively—yet not quite grimly—straight ahead.
We may not be the same, we may not even be as similar as we could sometimes want, but when we’re on the bus, at least we’re all in the same boat.