Sleepers, Squeezers, Lurkers, and More: Interacting With Subway Riders in Their Natural Habitat

In a city that values personal space, we sure spend a lot of time in close contact with one another, particularly on mass transit. I personally will only board a packed subway car if I am running late and have to get somewhere immediately, otherwise, I'm perfectly content to scope out the platform, note where the doors open, and wait for the next train (this behavior makes me a camper, as we will discuss shortly)—if I have learned anything traveling via mass transit, it's that there is always another train.

Perhaps believing that my commuting strategy had lulled me into false beliefs about the success of my commuting strategies, the subway gods decided to remind me of the value of personal space recently. The 2/3 subway lines were down, which meant that I—as well as hundreds of other people who normally take those lines—was forced to find alternate routes. Having resigned myself to missing my regular LIRR train, I opted to follow my rule of letting the crowd go before me. And as usual, it worked. (Or seemed to.) A train came, and everyone piled in—they would have ridden between the cars if the practice hadn't been outlawed. Just to be safe, I let another train roll through the station. It was moderately full, but boardable, but I was already off schedule at this point, so I figured I might as well wait for a more comfortable experience. Not too long after, surely enough, a quick peek down the tunnel revealed the dim glow of the headlights of an oncoming train.

The train arrived and it was virtually empty, so I boarded and stood by the door because I only needed to go three stops or so. Well, what I hadn't banked on was how crowded the trains must have been when they got to the stops after the station where I boarded. So if the trains had been merely crowded by my judgment at my station, they were virtually unboardable by the time they got to subsequent stations, which meant that people had no choice but to wait—until the train I was on arrived, and they flooded the car. I'm a petite person, so I quickly found myself pressed against the glass. Sideways. Under someone's armpit. Yeah. I had a pang of claustrophobia and had to remind myself that I would be getting off soon. I closed my eyes and breathed (though not too deeply) and tried to subtly adjust myself into a slightly more comfortable position. For those of you who don't live in an area where mass transit can get this chaotic, to help you fully appreciate this experience, I've included the following Seinfeld clip where Elaine Benes gets stuck on a train on her way to a wedding:

Elaine Benes Stuck on the Subway, Seinfeld

Despite leaving a facial imprint on the glass door, I could understand why the train was crowded—service interruptions and delays aren't fun for anyone. I doubt anyone on the trains that afternoon had an enjoyable ride. But what about when personal space is invaded when there is no reason for it?

A door dweller stakes his claim. He could also be a packer, but his manuevering to remain in the door caused me to classify him as specified

Last week, while having dinner with my good friend James, we got to swapping commuter stories. We were talking about large backpacks, and prime spots on the train (he prefers to stand by the door instead of taking a seat—consequently, I have categorized him as a door dweller), when the conversation turned to people who seem oblivious to others around them—the ones bump you with their backpacks, blast their iPods, occupy multiple seats, etc. On his way to meet me for dinner, James fell victim to a close-stander. Surely you've heard of close-talkers (which, interestingly, is another Seinfeld phenomenon)? Well, close-standers are oblivious to personal space boundaries. They will stand inches away, their hair in your face, knocking your book or personal device out of your hand, and they do this without any need for it, and without seeming to know they are doing it. Close-standers do this when there is more than ample space on the train to accommodate everyone. Perhaps they are used to traveling only during rush hour when close-standing is mandatory; perhaps the trains and buses they ride are always crowded; perhaps this is their way of getting human contact—no one really knows, but close-standers sometimes create uncomfortable situations for those around them.

Before we go on, it might bear discussing the different categories that subway riders can be grouped into. All sorts of characters ride the subway and, like any good cast, they know their parts well:

  • Campers. Commuters who know where to stand so that the doors open in front of them, enabling them to board the train firs,t are campers. They get very annoyed when non-campers, or lurkers, try to push past them and board before them. There is definitely something obsessive about campers, but they are relatively harmless. If they do get bypassed somehow, they may be annoyed, but they follow the crowd—or re-position themselves and wait for another train.

  • Close-standers. People who stand "thisclose" to you despite the fact that it is not crowded and everyone can be afforded some personal space. It is believed that close-standers are oblivious to their needless violation of personal space. If space permits, you can try moving away from a close-stander, but you do want to be aware that close-standing could mask sexual harassment, which has also been on the rise on mass transit (more on this later)

  • Door dwellers. These are travelers who prefer to stand—in the doorway. They don't rush for seats, but strategically place themselves in the doorway, which is considered prime real estate on mass transit systems, to minimize having to shuffle around the subway car to accommodate the ebb and flow of passengers. Door dwellers usually also know which side of the car to stand on to minimize having to move out of the way to permit people to exit and board the train. They will grow extremely irritated if a new boarder tries to usurp their position and they have also been known not to step aside to let people on or off the train for this reason. Do not attempt to secure the door position if a door dweller is already in place, but assert your right to move past him or her.

  • Lurkers. These are people who try to bypass the efforts of campers and door dwellers. They want the positions these people have managed to secure, but lack the resources and abilities to claim them on their own, so they wait for opportune moments when they can sidle by. They will wait for the last minute before boarding the train in an effort to oust the door dwellers. They also try to come in from the side to bypass campers. Lurkers are very good at what they do. However, they do tend to be older travelers, so perhaps it's a travel strategy: if older travelers don't plot in this way, they may get shuffled out of the way. If you think a lurker is making a move that will result in your comfort and hard work being compromised, stand your ground. They don't like to make eye contact, so looking at one squarely in the eyes is often enough to deter their behavior.

  • Packers. People carry large bulky items with them. In all fairness, though, packers need to be distinguished from folks for whom the subway is their main method of transportation and who really have no other option for transporting bulky items. The term packer is therefore reserved for those people with super large backpacks they refuse to take off when they board the train. If you encounter a packer, you would be best advised to practice defensive maneuvers. I have been hit by a large backpack, and it's quite a weapon. Recently, I witnessed a packer on the train whose backpack was easily 50 pounds or so. In turning around, she easily cleared a swath of passengers from her vicinity. They were not happy, and she met their protests with protests of her own.

  • Pole huggers. The folks don't want to share pole space with you—they don't care if you fall down or into other riders when the train stops suddenly because you had nothing to hold onto. These folks can be identified by their possessive nature toward the pole: They will crook an arm or elbow—sometimes even both arms—around the pole, or lean against it, and effectively block anyone else from using it for support and stability. Pole huggers will relent as more people crowd around them and reach for the pole. Securing a place at a pole is simply a matter of showing the pole hugger you do not recognize their ownership of the pole.

  • Sleepers. Early morning trains are where you can find the sleeper species, although they have appeared at other times as well, and seem to be straying from their natural habitat as the economy worsens. It's one thing to close your eyes until you get to your destination, another thing to fall so deeply asleep that you head, and soon your entire body, is leaning on a stranger. The best thing to do if you encounter a sleeper is to prop him or her back up. If the sleeper continues to fall on you, you are then entitled to poke or prod the person and inform them that they are sleeping on you. This is New York, however, so be prepared for the person to just stare at you.

  • Sprawlers. Oh yes, the sprawler category. Sprawlers tend to be men, but women can sprawl too. It's not enough that they have a seat, they feel the need to sprawl out so that no one can sit on either side of them. They do seem to prefer end seats, which minimizes their impact. The best way to combat a sprawler is to say "Excuse me" and then take the seat. The sprawler may grumble, but will relinquish inches allowing you to sit. Be advised, however, that the sprawler will continue to sprawl, so it will still be an uncomfortable experience.

  • Squeezers. Squeezers will try to fit into a seat when they cannot fit. They do so anyway, and rather than perch on the edge until more room becomes available, they insist on sliding all the way back to sit "properly" in a seat causing people on either side extreme discomfort. There is no known effective way to deal with squeezers—though I suppose you yourself can stand.

We could go on listing categories extensively, but I think we have the basics. Now that you have an understanding of the cast of characters, let's return to James' story. The train was relatively empty, and so he was able to claim the preferred domain of door dwellers. When the train pulled into a subsequent station, the doors on the opposite side of where he was standing opened and a woman boarded. She crossed the aisle to stand in front of James with her back to him. And slowly the space between them seemed to diminish. According to James, "she was all up in my business!" As the train rocked back and forth, she bumped him a few times. James didn't confront her, but he was perplexed—with all the space available, it seemed ridiculous that she would crowd him as she did.

So I proposed a few suggestions to James to explain the woman's behavior:

  1. She was a door dweller too.The problem with this argument is that there were other doors available, so she could have claimed one as her own.

  2. She was attempting to flirt by pressing her rear into him. James nixed this idea because, while was uncomfortably close, she didn't seem to intentionally bump him. Also, James believes that it would have just been a weird way to pick someone up. She never once made eye contact with him—it was as though she didn't know he was there.

  3. She was a close-stander. We seemed to come to an agreement on this point. James felt her behavior was unwarranted, but she also seemed clueless—classic signs of a close-stander.

Riding the subway is a unique social experience. As mass transit, it is used by people of all cultures and backgrounds, and undoubtedly people have different notions of what are socially acceptable interactions. However, quite a few of the categories above can create uncomfortable situations as you find yourself in close bodily contact with strangers as a result of their actions. An alarming trend that has grown out of this is the rise of sexual harassment on the subways. In close quarters, people are groped, and according to the comments in response to the campaign, been ejaculated on and rubbed up against. One emptier trains, or when riding late at night, riders have reported men exposing themselves. It's clearly a jungle out there. The Holla Back blog provides a forum where people can share their subway harassment stories—be warned if you visit the site that some of the stories are quite explicit. The MTA launched an anti-harassment campaign, but it remains to be seen how effective it has been.

Anti-harassment ad on the subway.

This particular type of unpleasant subway interaction aside, many of the offenses attributed to these categories seem to stem from a brand of social indifference. People don't care because their interactions with one another are largely minimized by the cushion they carry in the forms of iPods, PDAs, smart phones, and even books and magazines. But many of these categories simply represent commuting strategies. I am certain that campers and door dwellers have been around for some time. Packers may have emerged as a result of current economic times. But it is also true that the norms of social behavior are changing. Of course there are those who simply feel that others should accommodate them. I have observed this with packers and sprawlers and squeezers in particular. The nature of social interactions is changing as a result of new technology and media. It is yet unclear as to how the social order will evolve.

Have a category to add to the list above? Want to share a subway story? Join the discussion below!

This post originally appeared on Anthropology in Practice.

22 responses so far

  • LovleAnjel says:

    Great post! I lived in Chicago for a long time, so it hit home. One thought-- packers may be like CloseStanders, in that they don't know they are being rude. SOP for a backpack is to take it off and hold it at your feet, using your other hand to grasp a pole or handle (I was a grad student, so I had a rather large backpack for my commute). It may not occur to them that it's okay to take your pack off on the train.

    You have also, of course, not included the Crazy or Preaching categories. Both are a pain but are warded off by holding a book in front of your face and pretending to be deaf.

  • kdcosta says:

    I am sure the Packers appreciate your balanced view. 🙂 One of the things that I realized while writing this post was just how out of tune we can be with other people in public spaces. We're largely absorbed, and have little sense for the comfort of others. It's just amazing to watch.

    I think I purposely left the Preachers off of the list. They deserve a post unto themselves!

    Glad you stopped by!

  • william e emba says:

    A different kind of close-packer:

    The following has happened to me more than once. I'm sitting in the window seat of a bus with extra baggage, and as the bus fills up I load up everything on my lap so that someone can take the aisle seat. Soon enough we pass the peak occupancy, and there's open space everywhere, yet the aisle fellow simply can't move to the completely open seat one over, leaving me jammed.

    The first couple of times this happened, it was an Asian guy, and I thought he couldn't bear to insult me by implying that sitting jam packed against me is uncomfortable. But over time, I've noticed it's not race (or sex) specific behavior.

    • kdcosta says:

      I've had that happen on a few occasions on the LIRR commuter trains I take to and from work--on the subway people tend to move around a little more freely. But you would imagine that it can't be comfortable for the other person either. A coworker of mine who travels to and from New Jersey via the PATH commuter trains once pointedly asked a man to move once seats had freed up. The man responded, "Well, what if someone wants to sit there." In a car that is 2/3rd empty, he was concerned about someone wanting a seat. So you never can know what people are thinking!

      Do you mind telling us what city you're commuting in?

  • Katherine says:

    I'm a pole hugger 😀 Not that I prevent others from holding on, but if I'm not close, I get pushed around so much that I can't reach the pole anymore. And I don't live in a country where close packing is very common, so if I've been pushed away from the pole I'm still not packed close enough that I won't fall down if I get unbalanced.

  • Ken says:

    In Chicago riding the Metra heavy rail system there is a different set of codes and social rules that get followed as opposed to riding the light rail system (the El).

    Part of it is that the heavy rail cars are operated as a throw-back to the past. A conductor still comes through the cars and collects the cash fares based on where you got on and where you will be getting off. (Yes, you can have monthly or multi-ride passes, but it's surprising how many people still just pay the conductor.) Only earlier this year, and only reluctantly, did the Metra system put in some credit-card machines at some stations.

    Eating and drinking (even alcohol) is also allowed. Probably because people seem pretty good about cleaning up after themselves.

    The cars are also, of course, big. And many have lavatories. So, overall, there's a very different feel to riding the Metra as opposed to riding the El.

    With that overly long preface, let me explain a variation or two on your classifications.

    On the Metra cars, you can flip seat-backs so that two sets of seats can face each other. This makes for a great way for a family or other group to kind of have a "booth" for the trip. Sometimes, however, a business person likes to use this as an office for the trip (or sometimes someone just wants a foot-rest across from them). The problem comes in when the train gets full, of course. Once someone has claimed one of these "booths" no one seems to want to give it up. Especially those who have turned it into a mobile office with laptop, briefcase and papers spread all over. Eventually the conductor has to step in and fix the problem. I've never seen anyone give up their "private booth" of their own accord.

    The door dwellers are similar, but because there are steps up and down to the doors from the inside, you can have multiple tiers of dwellers. And there are some etiquette differences in how people steal or give up the door positions.

    Lots of other differences as well, but this is starting to turn into a post in itself....

    Let me summarize with the conjecture that the conductors seem to impact people's behavior. They not only collect fares, but also act as hall monitors.

  • malkie says:

    I'm a sleeper, but with a difference - I have a neurological condition that, before diagnosis & treatment, meant that I would fall asleep standing up on the subway (Toronto).

    I can only imagine that it would be quite disconcerting to see a respectably-dressed man start to sway, then buckle at the knees, recover before falling to the floor, blush with embarrassment, and repeat the performance several times in a 30-minute journey.

  • kdcosta says:

    Katherine: I'm pretty good at getting a seat, but when I have to stand, I have to be a pole person too. I'm just not tall enough to reach the overhead bars.

    Ken, I've never been to Chicago, but it sounds like you're describing something similar to our commuter trains here. And yes, there are lots of different rules on those! It was difficult to pick what posts I should move over, but I have a collection of commuter train stories here: The issue you're describing is all too common in terms of seat space, and our conductors are only just starting to get involved.

    Malkie: Yikes! I fainted once on the subway, and that was terrifying! You get a pass - the guy who's snoring on my shoulder at 8:15 and drooling on me does not.

    Thanks all!

  • Dr Becca says:

    Amazing post, and as a fellow NYC commuter, I can vouch for every word. I am a total Camper--my commute involves 3 trains, and I know not only where to stand on the platform so that the doors open in front of me, but which subway car door will spit me out by the stairs at the next station so I can get to my next platform-camping spot in the most efficient way possible.

    • kdcosta says:

      A fellow camper! It's totally worth the planning, especially when it gets you ahead of the crowd. I was once with some folks who didn't want to camp. When we boarded the train and they were unable to find seats, they made sure they camped at the next platform.

  • Adriana says:

    Great post! Very accurate taxonomy of NYC subway riders. I'm definitively a camper, a really good one, because lurkers never succeed getting on the train before me. I never wait for the next train, because exactly like you describe, kdcosta, the train will be packed one or two stations further, and, frankly, I just want to bite the bullet and get home or wherever I was going. I'm a pole hugger, but only if the train is half empty and there is room for a other people; I'm a door dweller every morning, because my morning commute is such that the doors will open on the opposite side of where I stand throughout my whole ride. I can't stand door dwellers that won't budge for people getting on and off the train.

    There is another category of annoying riders: the preachers! I've been getting them too often in Queens. These people either read aloud (with a booming voice) from the Bible or some other religious book, sometimes in stereo! I kid you not, once there were two of these preachers and theirs was a coordinated assault of screaming some mumbo-jumbo from both sides of the car. I'm an atheist, but my lack of religious belief is not the reason why I find these people rude and annoying, I couldn't care less if they were reading Dawkins' The God Delusion" at the top of their lungs, I'd be equally annoyed. My subway ride is my own little time with myself, I like to read and it's impossible to concentrate if someone is screaming in your about damnation and hell and sin and repentance. They are just being RUDE. And I'm pretty sure their behavior is illegal, too.
    I confess, I think about shutting them up all the time, or reading even louder from my book, but in the end I always bite my tongue and suffer in silence (my silence).

  • Bostonian says:

    if I have learned anything traveling via mass transit, it’s that there is always another train.

    I take it you've never ridden the Green Line in Boston.

  • kdcosta says:

    @Adriana: I really like that you're willing to admit flexibility in moving between categories. Commuting definitely requires adapting to circumstances. I have been thinking about Preachers. I left them out here because they really do deserve their own post. I'll think on it some and see if there's anything there.

    @Bostonian: Nope, never. In New York City, there is ALWAYS another train with the exception of late, late night transit. And as a petite person, it's definitely worth waiting the extra 3 minutes to get on a slightly less crowded one.

  • Lol, this post is great. I am a camper all the way. And I do get quite irritated when the lurkers usurp my staked-out entry point.

  • malkie says:

    It ought to be plain how little you gain
    by getting excited and vexed.
    You're always too late for the previous train
    and always in time for the next.

  • MrFreitag says:

    I am commuting off-peak from Jersey City to Princeton, so I have plenty of time watching people in a mostly non-crowded environment. At some point I started taking pictures of people and post them on Twitter using the hashtag #PeopleOnTrains. Your post definitely inspired me for some new motives that I might take in the future. I think the lurkers and campers will be the hardest ones to catch. Here's some examples of what I already have:
    * Preacher:
    * Sleeper:
    * The most professional sleeper I have seen so far:
    * Working Sprawler before boarding the train:
    * Another Sprawler:
    * The underaged secret drinker:

  • Adriana says:

    Looking forward to your post on the preachers! I really enjoy your blog, BTW

    • kdcosta says:

      Thanks Adriana. Given the response to this post, I've definitely been thinking about the preachers--except now that I'm ready to tackle them, they all seem to have gone into hiding. Hopefully, I'll be able to collect some observations and get a post up on them soon.

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