an exercise in prejudice

Amtrak service from Ardmore, Pennsylvania to Penn Station in Manhattan first stops at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where about half the passengers get off, then makes stops at a series of small stations in New Jersey, before arriving at its terminus two hours later.

Amtrak cars seat two passengers on each side of the center aisle. Like everyone else traveling alone, I want to have a set of two seats to myself. There are some small number of solo travelers who would prefer to sit next to someone; these are of course the travelers to avoid being near at all costs.

If there are no sets of vacant seats, I must choose whom to sit next to. I must make this choice as I walk down the center aisle. There may be fellow travelers in front of me, making the same decision, on whose leftovers I must feed, and behind me, who will feed on my leftovers. The more people behind me, the less able I am to linger in one spot to consider my options, though veterans utilize carefully orchestrated stall tactics to buy an extra moment, such as switching a large piece of luggage from one hand to another or, in a related maneuver, accidentally having a wayward luggage strap get caught on an armrest. In general, however, I have about three seconds to assess each pair of passengers as they appear on either side before me: 1.5 seconds per person.

I must make this decision in 1.5 seconds, with a paucity of information. I see what each candidate looks like, hear what they’re saying if they happen to be saying anything, and occasionally catch a scent. No touching or tasting is allowed, and I cannot ask any questions. In 1.5 seconds I must decide based almost entirely on prejudice, preconception, and bias.

If I can’t sit alone, I want to avoid sitting next to someone who will try to talk to me. I want to avoid sitting next to someone who takes up too much space, someone who will eat, talk on the phone, pass gas, or steal my wallet. I want to avoid sitting next to someone who smells bad, or might start to perspire if the train stops, or will whip out a portable DVD player and start watching a movie, because I know that will distract me.

If I can’t sit alone, what I really want is to sit next to someone who will get off at the first stop, 30th Street Station, so that I can have the set of two seats to myself for the remainder of the trip. Coming to a decision based on these goals would be difficult enough in 1.5 seconds if it weren’t that my prejudices tell me that the kind of person I otherwise wouldn’t want to sit next to is also the kind of person who is likely to get off at 30th Street Station. So complicated, this world we live in.

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