I think America’s love affair with the automobile has less do to with the romance of the open road and everything to do with the grossness of the shared travel experience.
In your car, you’re the master of your destiny. Sure, getting stuck in traffic can mess up a schedule. But you can control your departure time. No need to plan around catching the 10:03 train out of Penn Station. And you have complete control over who rides with you. Your seat mates are hand-picked. You know, before you invite someone into your car, if they have suspicious hygiene habits. You might even appreciate your passenger’s annoying quirks and because you’re friends (or family) you can tell them to “cut it out” if they become too much.
You’re not locked in a hurtling tin missile full of cell phone chatting, coughing, seat hogs who can’t spell etiquette let along display the graciousness required for group harmony.
You can probably tell that I’m bitter because I’m car-less.
Yes, I’m a mass transit user. I take at least one plane trip each month. I ride the subway and I’ve taken a few MegaBus trips. In the last several weeks, I’ve jumped on Amtrak for several round trips. I’ve had lots of experience. I’ve had hours to endure and lots of time to think.
My last Amtrak trip was especially hideous. I fought my baser instincts (as I always do) and didn’t try to protect the empty seat next to me. As much as I’d like a buffer, everyone has a right to a seat and they shouldn’t have to work hard to get one. I don’t need the conductor announcement asking riders to be courteous. I am the picture of courtesy. So when a Converse clad hipster asked if the seat next to me was taken, I beamed, “It’s all yours!”
It was a beautiful moment. He was polite, I was polite. The possibilities stretched before us. Maybe we’d strike up a conversation about the latest must-have plaid shirt or about which Brooklyn restaurants are curing artisanal bacon in their basements.
And then it hit me. The smell. His smell. He had a dank and stale dirty hair, over-worn clothes smell.
Between his foul odor and his gurgling – yes, he had a rumbling, wet cough, I felt as if he’d unzipped his chest, plucked out a lung and pulled it down over my head. The train ride was four hours long.
Maybe Amtrak could increase ridership over night if they took a page from Soul Cycle’s book. Soul Cycle, a popular spin class, felt the need to put a list of rules up in their gyms reminding riders that nobody wants to share their odor. Check out #3.
Maybe we’re all a bit bonkers and need to be told to leave our phone out of an exercise class and to be kind. Maybe odor control isn’t just an automatic, well-of-course-I-don’t-want-to-stink kind of thing. Soul Cycle is on to something (and I’m deeply sorry I giggled at the list and I swear, that will never happen again). It seems we need rules. We do better when we have standards to live up to and guidelines to follow.
And so here I am with… drum roll please … margagogo’s Official Rules for Harmonious Travel.
The first few apply to all Transit Options (Trains, Planes, Subways, Buses and even Taxis)
Be clean. This includes hair, teeth, clothes – everything on or about you should be spiffy. Once, on a plane trip back from Istanbul, I sat next to a young man who smelled so bad that every time he shifted enough to accidentally air out his pits, I nearly suffocated. When he lifted his arm to take his drink from the flight attendant, I feared I’d faint. I think he was an exchange student off on his first big adventure. I wanted to tell him that the hero, the guy who gets the girl (or the guy), is never smelly. If you think of it from a purely selfish point of view, you never know who you’re going to sit next to – your future spouse, your future boss … or the person who doesn’t speak to you and hates you because they have to share your air.
Smiles Everyone, Smiles! Though it’s a risk, it’s possible to say “hello” without being obligated to chat for the duration of the trip. And I’ve heard (I’m sure I should quote a study here) that being nice in general is not only a good thing for other people but it makes you feel happier. So, when we’re all in it together, being nice is a win/win.
Make an Effort! Make an effort to keep your germs to yourself. Even if you believe that coughing into your elbow doesn’t make a bit of difference, everyone appreciates the effort. Same goes with crying babies. Effort gets you sympathy. Apathy, even due to complete exhaustion, earns ire.
- If you’re sitting in Row 28, don’t put your luggage in the overhead at Row 5. That just messes everyone up and causes a giant traffic jam when the person in Row 5 has to fight against the tide to get the stuff they had to store in the space above your seat.
- Board as your row is called. As tempting as it is to try to board first, you just gum up the works.
- Please leave your beer soaked rabbit and cabbage curry hot pepper surprise at home. Nobody cares that it was your dear Grandmother’s special recipe. They just care how it smells.
- There is a special place in heaven for the subway rider who willingly gives up their position in the car to step out when it isn’t their stop so they can clear the path for people getting off. Please do this.
- Don’t lean on the pole. People need something to hold on to when standing on a moving train. Nobody wants that thing to be your belt loop or any part of you.
- Please take your backpack off. Believe me, you have no idea how big that thing is.
Bus & Train Travel:
- Shhhhhh. I might want to know what you’re having for dinner so if you stand up and make a general announcement, something like, “If anyone wants to swap recipes, meet me in the café car in 10,” I might join you. But, I don’t want to hear a lengthy cell phone discussion about peas, or roast beef or what your Aunt Jane did at dinner the night before.
And finally, always share. I’m not woman enough to tackle the age-old problem of who gets the arm rest. But, I do know that you shouldn’t try to save the seat next to you for an imaginary friend. Share the aisle space. Don’t hang out in the bathroom, tuck stuff under the seat in front of you if it will fit. Put it on your lap if your ride is short. When you get your private plane or train or bus, you can do whatever you want. (And when you do get that private ride, please invite me along. I’m an excellent passenger.)
See, isn’t everyone feeling happy now? (Did I leave anything out? Feel free to share – sharing’s good!)
If you want to feel happier – or even happiest (and at this point you’re not afraid of a subway ride) go check out the new bar on 121 West 10th street, NYC called The Happiest Hour. They smile, they’re kind and the only odor I detected was from the free french fries they kept bringing out and setting on the bar. Yes, I said free french fries – could they get any more friendly?
The vibe is tropical retreat meets old school diner meets high-end cocktail bar. Picture getting a grilled cheese in Havana. And you should get the grilled cheese – it was warm, buttery, cheesy goodness and it came with tomato soup. The fries were bottomless. The margarita was excellent.