Fear, loathing and window-seat diplomacy on BART

BART gave me freedom. For just a few bucks, I could follow a whim and go to a stranger's funeral in Lafayette because the obituary intrigued me. My honey and I met or parted a thousand times at the Berkeley or Balboa Park turnstiles; NO WET TICKETS dried my eyes.

A million enchanting buskers have entertained my platform stays. And the only person who's ever recognized me from my column did so on a BART train in the East Bay.

But I really remember the awkward bits.

I got on BART at SFO after dropping someone off at the airport. An older gentleman needed help, and I gave it to him. He was from India, so we got into a conversation and he sat with me.

We were still above ground, and I was enjoying the view out the window seat, when the chat turned to the Differences Between India and the States, and someone mentioned how relationships are different here. He casually said women are at fault for most divorces.

I poked the discussion a bit to check if he was joking or I hadn't heard him right. No, he really did think the vast majority of divorces arose from women's negligence or malice.

I decided to leave his company, and asked him to turn so I could get to the aisle. Gallantly, perhaps, he insisted on leaving instead. Maybe I should have stayed and tried to reason with him. But how likely is a 60-year-old stranger to change his mind on this sort of thing? It could have gotten ugly.

Like the time a teen near me on a morning train in S.F. had his shoes on the seat opposite him. Another passenger asked him to remove them and he responded with a slur. I decided I'd finally stand up to this sort of delinquency, and the confrontation turned into a loud argument that ruined the commute of everyone in that car. He told me that we couldn't change from the way he'd been brought up, and I told him that we can all be better than we are. I left a stop early.

A few years ago, I wrote: "All you need to say is 'excuse me' as you wriggle into that window seat. The righteousness of our cause will make your rest all the sweeter. 'Excuse me' makes the perfect non-jerky request for a jerk to cease his jerkitude. We can always phrase our requests in polite ways. 'Please turn down your music; it hurts my ears.' 'Could you please make room?' If the other person reacts with belligerence or you otherwise feel endangered, you can always ask the driver or BART operator to intervene."

But the operator is far away. When one or two passengers challenge an uncaring, smirking rulebreaker, it's just uncomfortable for everyone, and the offender won't stop. But collective action is uncomfortably close to mob justice.

A father got on the train with his son and spoke to him very roughly, possibly giving him a cuff on the wrist. Finally, a woman near him reprimanded him — "I'm not happy with the way you're treating him" — and others joined in. The father defended himself with the standard none-of-your-beeswax stuff, then realized he'd taken the wrong train and left with the boy. Did we do any good? Will that child remember the concern of strangers?

My own obliviousness I find pretty memorable. Like the time I sneezed into a newspaper and would have absent-mindedly left it on the train, if another passenger hadn't pointed it out. Or on Sept. 11, 2001. An 8 a.m. ride across the Bay, before I'd seen or heard any of the news. The car was deathly silent, but I didn't notice — hey, commuters can be quiet — and just worked on my Russian homework. Was I lucky that I learned of the attack 20 minutes after everyone else? I can't decide whether I was lucky or missed out on precious fellow-feeling.

After all, one time I did share vulnerability with a BART stranger, and it turned out well.

We met on an Amtrak and continued talking on the way into San Francisco from Richmond. He was a philosophy professor, on his way from one conference to another, and I mentioned my fear of moving to New York. He said:

"New York is a city so big that you might think it will kill you. But just remember that it has failed to kill many people stupider than you."

That made up for a lot of bad conversations. Thanks, BART.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.

Sept. 11, 2001: An 8 a.m. ride across the Bay before I'd heard the news. The car was deathly silent, but I didn't notice and just did my homework. Was I lucky that I learned of the attack 20 minutes after everyone else?

I can't decide whether I was lucky or missed out on precious fellow-feeling.