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Elbow Room MAG
I simply refuse to settle for the middle seat; I must claim the aisle or a window. Choosing Seat B is like choosing a gruesome death. The horrors of jostling for elbow room can ruin otherwise pleasant flights.
I often proceed down the narrow central artery of the plane until I land in Seat A, my window seat, with the guaranteed accommodation of one armrest. I slide in and scan the oncoming passengers, wondering who will fill Seat B. The initial river slows to a trickle, and the only other passenger in my row is in Seat C. An ample two feet of no man’s land lies between us.
Relieved, I settle my elbows on both armrests, throw a glance at the relaxing resident of Seat C, and together we revel in our luck, tossing our coats on the vacant Seat B. Suddenly, one lone passenger, arms akimbo, barrels down the aisle. “Oh! Is this Row 14, Seat B? Sorry, excuse me, what a hectic morning …” My spatial comfort transforms into cramped bitterness. No more comfortable symmetry of two supported elbows, no more room for my voluminous down jacket. Seat C and I internally mourn our loss of elbow room. With airlines so packed these days, we shouldn’t have been hopeful. Why do we Americans desire and need this space to feel at ease?
The awkward sensation I feel when confined in public is a mystery. The subtle rules that govern my conduct and discomfort are silently defined. On plane rides, the imaginary borders of elbow territory shift like baggage during the flight. Without dialogue, a stranger and I share the armrest, attempting Elbow Utopia, yet we are both equally deprived of free movement. The more aggressive types (myself included) dominate from the outset or stage a coup d’état. We are like knights jousting, endeavoring to subtly knock the opponent’s elbow off the armrest.
When traveling on the Metro train into Chicago, I rarely dare to sit across from strangers, even when there is little space. I keep looking until I find a place where I have a few seats, thus a happy buffer zone. Situating my coat and purse on either side, I clearly establish my claim. My everyday observations and inclinations lead me to believe this is an unhealthy obsession in our culture.
Even in times of community we need personal space to feel at ease. Let us observe these rare times when we are somewhat gregarious, like in churches or movie theaters. I perform the Eleven O’Clock Shuffle with other church attendees, scooting to the center of the pews to create more seating. A wave of nervous coughs and awkward laughter rolls across the room as we file in like crayons in a box. We grudgingly acquiesce to this inconvenience, secretly wishing for comfier circumstances.
Really, who desires to cozy up to strangers, feeling the tension – however irrational – of entrapment? We all want a buffer zone. Particularly in movie theaters, we considerately spread out to avoid blocking one another’s views, yet we really are hoping to avoid neighborly chomping, burping, laughing, and chatting.
Consider this: you enter a sparsely occupied movie theater. After you pick out a center seat with a splendid view, a stranger approaches. He plops down one seat away in your row. Your suspicion is aroused and your level of discomfort escalates. Why is he sitting so close? Does he not realize the whole theater is empty? But this is a ridiculous situation; we all know this is not socially acceptable. Our need for a buffer zone is a mutually understood piece of our cultural heritage.
As descendants of immigrants and settlers, it is little wonder that Americans often yearn for adequate space. Many of our ancestors also sought a buffer from strangers, rolling along the Oregon Trail toward wild territory. Take the Pilgrims, who sailed from limited islands to a seemingly limitless continent. Remember the newly independent Americans who violated the Proclamation of 1763, traversing the Appalachians in search of land?
After the turn of the nineteenth century, the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition instilled Manifest Destiny in our genes. We train our youth in our pioneering ways, as the School House Rock song “Elbow Room” demonstrates: “The way was opened up for folks with bravery. There were plenty of fights to win land rights, but the West was meant to be; it was our Manifest Destiny!” Our divine right to engulf the entire continent justified our expansion. Daniel Boone bellowed, “I want more elbow room!” as he moved west to Missouri.
Our craving for independence and room to roam lived on. About a century later, the first affordable cars helped spawn suburban sprawl. Cities became crowded to the point of us sacrificing a short commute in favor of luxurious personal space, a pristine lawn, plentiful fences, high hedges, and clear property lines. So insatiable is our need for space that we bought the far-flung states of Hawaii and Alaska though several states, like South Dakota, were ripe for development.
In the event that we need more space, “Elbow Room” suggests an untapped resource: “When we’re crowded up together, I’m sure we’ll find some elbow room … up on the moon!”
What is so remarkable about our need is that it is not universal. Many western globetrotters chronicle the crowded conditions of other countries, from Korea to Russia. Acceptable distances between people vary from culture to culture. A French textbook claims that these differences are obvious; by the end of a conversation, an American has often traversed a whole room, steadily backing away from the relatively invasive Francophone.
In Japan, elbow room is utterly neglected. Japanese transit systems employ oshiya, “pushers” who shove as many tolerating passengers into a subway car as possible. Garbed in white gloves and navy suits, oshiya will stuff a subway car to 200 percent of its supposed capacity. With absolutely no elbow room, Americans would feel like bundles of tightly bound asparagus. If New York City began employing oshiya there would be a mass panic. We would fear pickpockets and other criminals, but the worst threat of all would be imminent claustrophobia. Surely most of my fellow Americans would rather walk or drive than tolerate the discomfort.
But what is so uncanny about American elbow room is that it is ingrained in us as we grow up. As children we are warned of the dangers of kidnappers, strangers, murderers, and crooks. I remember when I first went to Chicago as a wide-eyed and curious child. My parents were vigilant, holding my hand, my father stashing his wallet in a hidden pocket. I learned to be scared of strangers, to desire the refuge of personal space.
Yet as rebellious teenagers we may dare to challenge the status quo of elbow room. After school my friends and I would lodge as many of us as possible in an elevator without the help of any oshiya. Backpacks smashed into other passengers, perfume flooding our noses, we pressed together with squeals of laughter, welcoming everyone aboard. It was physically restrictive yet strangely satisfying. We flouted tradition without resorting to nervous coughs and awkward laughs. At the most basic physical level we grew closer together, bonding in our discomfort, trusting and not fearing one another.
Though we Americans often withdraw into the isolation of personal space, we can challenge our society’s unspoken rules. Our need for elbow room is not global; it is not necessary for us to be uneasy with our fellow humans, to separate ourselves in fear. Although a legacy of elbow room precedes us, we should not dread Seat B.