12 December 2008

Space Entitlement

I still recall the first time a man tried to give me his seat on the subway. And I refused. I would learn that it was a dead-giveaway (as if I needed one) that I was still en femme, not anywhere near living as I am now.

And then I think of the times I offered my seat to infirm or handicapped men. Just about all of them politely refuse. Then there was that old man with a cane who boarded a dolmus near Ephesus, Turkey. I'd rested my bag on the seat next to mine; when the man boarded the bus, I lifted it and motioned toward him. "Bey! Geceler!": Sir, come and sit here.

The ticket attendant/conductor explained that the man understood what I said. But, he added, the man was a Muslim fundamentalist, so he couldn't sit with a woman. And, even if I got up and moved my bag after, the man couldn't sit by me because in the rows in front of me sat a woman--and her husband. Ditto for the row in back of us.

Today on the bus, a black woman who was probably my age, give or take, got out of her seat and motioned for me to sit. I hesitated; she insisted without saying a word. To tell you the truth, I was glad to sit because my shoulder bag was full of papers and other things.

I've always been a klutz with etiquette. Sometimes I think I have a gene that makes me as incapable of it as I am of charm. I mean, if you know me, you'd have some idea of how many socially unacceptable things I've done.

Did I do the right, or socially acceptable, thing in taking that woman's seat? Somehow I figured she has a harder life than mine so she should have the seat. I know, I was making a lot of assumptions in that moment. But I really don't want to take something from someone who needs or deserves something more than I do.

It's really strange: As a man, I had--as nearly all men do--a sense of entitlement about my space. Females would step aside or squeeze around me on narrow sidewalks and other public venues. And, when they sat next to me on trains, buses or in other public venues, they'd pull invisible strait jackets around their arms and knees. I made no effort to claim the space; it was ceded to me.

Now, I wasn't one of those guys who sat with his legs as far apart as he could spread them while pregnant women and old men with canes practically folded into each other like parts of an accordion. Actually, I was too ornery to be truly obnoxious; then again, if you're ornery, you don't need to be obnoxious. (What did I just say?) So I kept my knees close to each other, not out of courtesy, but to avoid counter-transgression: By keeping out of their space, I kept them out of mine.

And I notice now that there is a sort of inverse entitlement: When I am offered a seat or space, I am expected to take it--because a man offered it to me. The same when a man opens a door for me: He seems to expect that I will pass in front of him and can't understand how it could be any other way. I'm not complaining about this; in fact, I rather enjoy it. But, I'm realizing now that such courtesies as men afford come from their sense of entitlement. In other words, because taking that space is their prerogative, they also have the option of giving it to me, a middle-aged (or getting there) woman.

So this leads me to another dilemma: On one hand, I respect, and am even thankful for, such men. After all, if they're giving me their seats, they're probably not the sort who would only give up their seats to women if they're young and pretty enough. Such men most likely rise for pregnant and infirm women, or those who are toting babies and small children.

And I find that, for the most part, those men are either older or darker than I am. The Latino men, I've found, are most accomodating in this way; American black men and their brethren from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and the Caribbean also extend such quotidien chivalries. As I mentioned, men over forty are more likely to give up their space than those younger, but in all of the groups of men I've mentioned, I've received such treatment from adolescent boys as well.

But a woman giving me her seat: Now what do I make of that?