Toward a Theory of Seatmate Deterrence on Amtrak

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 7 2010 1:27 PM

Toward a Theory of Seatmate Deterrence on Amtrak

I would like to applaud John Edgar Wideman for his groundbreaking work on the sociology of sitting next to strangers on Amtrak, a subject that has been overlooked by the academy for too long. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times , Wideman describes how, during his regular commute between New York City and Providence on the Acela, he almost always enjoys a double seat to himself. I call that divine intervention. He chalks it up, after considering and rejecting the alternatives, to being black.

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First, Wideman rules out obvious explanations that transcend race: He has no grotesque deformities— Google image search supports this—emits no bad odors, and doesn’t exhibit hostile body language. Nor does he believe his solitude is due to stereotypes about class, specifically noting that he does not wear "hip-hop clothing." This is the Acela, after all. It’s for people willing to pay an extra $65 to save 40 minutes.

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Wideman, a successful writer , describes his observations as a "casual sociological experiment." But he lacks any controlled variables. Granted, the only direct way I can think of to test his hypothesis would be to adjust his complexion while holding everything else—dress, demeanor, reading material—as constant as possible. The ethics of doing this notwithstanding, the makeup is murderous to your pores.

For a less direct test, he could adjust his attire. One out of four days, I would like to see Wideman wear an expensive, meticulously pressed suit, even if that investment requires taking the regional for a month. Another day he might wear a Gap sweater, slacks, and loafers. Other days he really could wear "hip-hop" clothing, and on others he should wear whatever he normally does, as a control. Maybe in a few months, he could switch out reading material: Jet one day, The New Yorker the next, Reader’s Digest after that.

But Wideman should not have to bear the cross alone. The question of how to avoid having a seat mate is far too vital. Most of us have faced this quandary: The train is filling up, what to do? Once, I made a friend on the train when no double seats were available—we bonded over her pet hedgehog, which she was smuggling in her purse in what I can only imagine was a gross violation of Amtrak policy. But, usually, I have no interest in socializing. The fear of ending up with a cell-phone talker—or worse, someone who wants to incessantly talk to you —is enough to reconsider the political correctness of blackface.   Do we leave the newspaper on the other seat? Pretend to be asleep? Call someone? Simply look cruel? Surely there other tried and true deterrents?

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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