Saturday, July 17, 1999

Seat of The Pants

They say the most important characteristic defining any individual relates to which issues they believe in and are willing to fight for.  For when push comes to shove, a person reveals their true meddle by which ideas cause a passionate response in their breast.   But perhaps more can be gleaned about personality, commitment and tolerance by basing that judgment not on where a person stands, but on where they are willing to sit.  

Normally, sitting is the great equalizer.  When it's time to negotiate peace, all the participants sit.  When it's time to do a deal, everybody grabs a seat.  When you want to have a heart-to-heart, you pull two chairs close together.  If you're looking for subtle clues as to power, note that they measure the height of each person standing on Lenin's tomb;  they don't take the same yardstick to dinner at the Kremlin. 

However, before we go any further, it's important that we factor economics out of our discussion. For if it's a choice based on price, then all bets are off.  Obviously, we'd all like to be flying first class or sit third row center.  But we don't always have the cash or, even if we do, the good seats might be sold out.  More likely, though, we don't t have the juice it takes... in dollars and mojo... to make the guy at the box office open the bottom drawer and pull out the good stuff.  

So let's confine ourselves to more egalitarian environments, such as a bus, a movie or a restaurant... in fact, anything or anyplace where people have an open choice of where they want to park themselves.  In these venues, the choice of where to sit is made based on a lifetime of phobias.  Just board any rush hour train or go to the local gigaplex, and watch the action.  

Some choices are practical.  On long trips, those who have good bladders and weary constitutions opt for window seats, where they can find a corner to meld into.  Those who are claustrophobic, or have just had a 32-ounce "Big Gulp," are more likely to covet an aisle.  At the movies, those who are vertically challenged have to have a clear line of sight, while those without a sweater or seated with their mothers have to be out of range of any arctic blast raining down from on high.  

Of course, while there are preferred seats for some, there are those who have a longer list of negative considerations.  In many a restaurant, being placed near the waiter's station is the equivalent to being sent to the Warsaw ghetto. Thank God that smoking  cars and flights are mostly relics;  if you weren't a devotee, being stuck between a Marlboro man and a Virginia Slims woman was truly hell on earth.  And I've seen people stand for an hour and a half train ride, rather than be confined to the toxic waste dump that is represented by the middle seat in a set of three.  

Even in open seating environments, where there are plenty of similar possibilities, many have favorite seats, based on long years of habit and convenience.  For some, it's a favored meeting spot for friends:  the corner table or the facing benches in the third car from the front.  For others, schedules dictate, with a coveted spot near the door necessary if there's any chance of making the connection from the 6:32 mainline to the 6:37 spur.  And then there is a certain school of thought that says that the hostess is trying to unload the cheap seats to the first rube that comes along... and so whatever you are offered initially is not as good as the one you are offered next.  

If you doubt that where you park your butt is a source of profound importance to some, try this on your next regular morning outing.  First, watch as the doors open how individuals scatter to their appointed spots, almost as if they've been assigned those seats.  Then, select a location you know to be usually occupied by a regular who gets on at a later stop.  When that stop comes, watch as the normal inhabitant of your seat comes barreling down the aisle, only to stop dead in their tracks when they see you in "their" spot.  They will look at you as if you just said disparaging things about their dog, then resignedly sit in another locale.  Upon exiting for the day, they will most likely glare at you. And you can bet it'll be the first thing they talk about when they get to the coffee pot at the office.  

Mind you, while "location, location, location" is as true in seating as in real estate, it is also true that any location can be rezoned at a moment's notice.  What might have been a desirable locale the first 200 times you sat there becomes uninhabitable if you wind with a neighbor who talks or snores or smells.  After all, who among us hasn't allowed themselves a self satisfied grin after racing down the aisle at the movies to get the perfect pair of seats: perhaps on the aisle about halfway back from the screen, or dead center between the Dolby speakers.  You settle in and await the show, only to have a woman with a Dolly Parton hairdo plunk down in front of you, or the winner of the Hulk Hogan look-a-like contest wedge himself one seat over.  Suddenly, what was a prime parking spot in front of a doorman building becomes dead center in front of a crack house, and you can't get out of there fast enough.  

Let's face facts.  The refrain of the old song says, "Sit down, you're rocking the boat."  But the truth of the matter is that for most of us, unless that seat is in a lifeboat of the Titanic, we'll take the chance that we'll swamp the sucker rather than spend two hours seated next to a guy who needs to explain the intricacies of his moth collection.


Marc Wollin doesn't care where he sits... as long as there's no one next to him.  His column appears weekly in The Record Review.