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The Middle Seat's Open, But Americans Say 'No, Thanks'

Recently a New York Times photographer snapped a revealing picture on a commuter train. She stood behind a long series of rows, 3 seats to a row. In the photo, every window and aisle seat -- and not 1 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. It seems women, in particular, feel uneasy sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers. And while window seats can also seem claustrophobic, at least there's a view. For the poor sap in a middle seat, there's a very good chance of being squished between the extremely obese, insufferably chatty, overly perfumed or repulsively unbathed. So, even at the end of a tiring day, it's less of a hassle to stand on the train trip home.

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 cellphone 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 2-abreast seating. To keep the seat next to them open, surly commuters lay down a newspaper, purse, or lunch pail; 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 3-abreast seating and grab a window or aisle seat, the seat next to them would almost surely stay empty the entire trip.