Help a Sister Out

You ever had one of those rough days at work where the only thing you can mentally or physically manage after leaving the office is plugging in your earphones and choosing the song “Take This Job and Shove It” on your iPod?

Today was one of those days.

The good thing about riding the subway in a situation like this is that, if the trains aren’t too crowded, I can actually decompress on the way home. The same cannot be said about sitting white-knuckled in bumper-to-bumper traffic breathing exhaust fumes. And as luck would have it, a seat opened up just as I was boarding the 2 train. I leaned my head against the wall, closed my eyes and went to my happy place.

There is a certain lulling quality to the rhythm of the train, especially when it builds up speed in the tunnel under the East River. (See Cure Insomnia, Save the World post.) So I was a little surprised and embarrassed, when I squinted one eyelid open to make sure that I wasn’t somewhere in Bed-Stuy (which, if I’m being honest with you, I have done before), to be eye-to-bellybutton with a ginormous pregnant woman.

How long had she been standing over me secretly coveting my seat, her aching back and swollen feet longing for some relief? I got up quickly and she seemed grateful rather than annoyed at my obliviousness. After my self-satisfaction at helping my fellow neighbor wore off, I wondered why no one else in the vicinity had offered his or her seat.

That brings me to the unspoken subway code outlining who should get a seat, which I thought was well-ingrained into the commuter’s psyche:
•Pregnant women, if they are obviously pregnant
•The elderly, but not just your average AARP member. We’re talking white hair and possibly a cane. Sixty is the new 40.
•Anyone of any age who is infirm. This includes crutches, blind with walking sticks and neck braces.
•A parent who is carrying a baby or has a baby strapped in a snugly. Not applicable if the child is in a stroller.

Not having ridden mass transit while pregnant, I decided to conduct an informal and highly subjective survey from the test group called Women I Know. I’m sad to report that apparently pregnant women end up standing more often than not. There is the understandable awkwardness of trying to decide if a woman in early stages of pregnancy is indeed with child or just, how can I say this gracefully, Reubenesque. But I was amazed to learn about the blatant disregard for weary travelers.

Of the hundreds of rides taken by my respondents while pregnant, they each could count on one hand the number of times a seat was immediately offered, and of the occasions they were given a seat, the generosity was bestowed either by a man of color or a teenager. (Teens do have a conscience…) Evidently white men rank lowest on the list of seat-giver-uppers, and women of all colors are not far behind. (Come on, women, help a sister out!)

One noteworthy incident involved a ride on the Metro North commuter train during which a woman was saving two seats on either side for her friends. Facing the prospect of standing for a 40-minute ride, my very pregnant friend asked for a seat to no avail. Finally a woman tucked into a corner relinquished hers, causing my friend to squeeze in front of several other people to get to it. The train doors closed with the “saved” seats still available.

Not long ago some Columbia University sociology students conducted a subway experiment. They had to approach seated New Yorkers, look them in the eye and ask them to give up their seats without any explanation. This, I think, is third on the list of things most feared right after public speaking and death. But here’s the kicker: with very few exceptions, every person gave up their seat, no questions asked! Whether the students were tailed home and given a once-over, was not reported in the results.



  1. I know this is an old blog post, but I wanted to say that I really appreciated reading what you had to say about pregnant women not being offered a seat on the NYC subway. I myself am a 6-month pregnant woman (and obviously so, as I have a relatively petite build–and a big ol’ belly that sticks out awkwardly). I decided tonight to search for posts related to giving up seats for pregnant women on the subway after being told during rush hour this evening that I should not use my pregnancy as an excuse to be rude…I asked a woman of approx. 55 yrs. of age “Do you mind if I take that seat?” after she had shoved me out of the way to take over the spot from a departed passenger. It concerns me as well that twice (while pregnant myself) I have offered a seat to two women further along than I.
    I guess overall I should count myself lucky, though, despite these very disheartening experiences, I have actually been offered a seat twice during my short time being pregnant…both times by teens.


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