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April 17, 2011

Americans Avoid Being the 'Middle' Man

by Ted Landphair

Commuters grab the window or aisle seat but leave the center spot open

You probably missed The New York Times  photograph that showed a revealing picture of New Yorkers’ rides into work on commuter trains.  The photographer stood behind a long series of rows, three seats to a row.  In the photo, every window and aisle seat - and not ONE middle seat - is occupied. The train is otherwise crowded; the aisles are jammed with standees - all of them ignoring the available middle seat.  Some people are even sitting on the floor.

The accompanying story explores why Americans despise center seats, though not mentioning the unavoidable fact that many of us are, shall we say, rather husky.  

It seems that women, in particular, feel uneasy sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers.  And while being jammed into a window seat even farther from the middle aisle can also seem claustrophobic, at least there’s a view. 

For the poor sap in the middle, there’s a real possibility of being squished between the extremely obese, insufferably chatty, overly perfumed or repulsively unbathed.  So, before or after a tiring day, a lot of people would rather stand.

One Times  reader amplified passengers’ dread of middle seats in a letter to the editor.  He wrote, "The chance of being physically squeezed, unwillingly drawn into neighboring cell-phone conversations, entering the ‘smell zone’ of foods eaten onboard, or being subjected to music via the earplugs of excessively loud iPods is just too great to risk."

And Americans’ aversion to close contact is even spreading to rail cars and buses with TWO-abreast seating.  To keep the seat next to them open, some surly commuters lay down a backpack, purse, or lunch pail next to them; slouch across both seats; or glare menacingly at standing passengers, daring them to sit down.

Of course, if these seat hogs would pick a train with three-abreast seating and grab a window or aisle seat, the seat next to them would almost surely stay empty the entire trip!