New Yorkers are always trying to figure out how to beat the masses. They love bypassing the long line at the club, acquiring a reservation at that popular restaurant, getting tickets to the sold-out show.
But there’s one aspect of New York life wherein people know not to attempt to beat the crowd. It has to do with seats in public places. If the best seat in a crowded public place is completely vacant for no apparent reason, stay away. Do not sit there. There is something secretly wrong with it. Empty seat on an otherwise packed subway car? Vomit underneath. Vacant stool in a crowded bar? The couple next door is either making out or breaking up. Open patch of grass for sunbathing on a warm day in Washington Square Park? Dog poo.
One might think that it is the wisdom of crowds that keeps people away from these booby traps. Seasoned New Yorkers have some sort of sixth sense that causes them to treat such apparently perfect opportunities with wariness and caution. They can sense something wrong with that subway seat and know to avoid it, no questions asked.
But while it’s true that veterans of the city know better than to believe there’s nothing wrong with the only empty seat in the entire theater, there is also a certain responsibility that falls on other citizens to keep their fellow city-dwellers out of harm’s way. Recently, for example, I was just about to sit in a perfectly normal-looking seat on the 4 train when a middle-aged lady waved her hand at me and said, “Op! Yoghurt.” I looked and sure enough there was a diagonal streak of what appeared to be strawberry yoghurt splattered up the seat-back. “Close one!” I said with a smile, but she’d gone back to her magazine. All in a day’s work.
I myself had the privilege of being one of these highly respected Seat Guards just a couple weeks ago. It started when I was about to take a seat at a little collection of outdoor tables near NYU on Mercer street. A man at a neighboring table said, “Op! Dead bird,” and I noticed a robin carcass under the chair I’d just pulled out. “Thanks,” I said, turning to look for another seat. “It’s OK,” the man said. “I’m leaving anyway.”
So I took his seat, but then the responsibility of warning off other unsuspecting victims from the robin carcass fell upon me. For example, a few minutes later an NYU undergrad looked like she was about to sit down. “Op, dead bird,” I said. “Ew! Thanks,” she said. She looked around and, noticing no other possible seats in this collection of tables, walked away. In another few minutes a mom approached pushing a stroller. “Op!” I said, “Dead bird,” and pointed at the bird. “Thanks,” she said, and went to sit on a bench at the other end of the block.
Then a kind of old guy with a grey beard approached the table with a friend. They were chatting and the guy came up to me and asked if he could borrow the empty chair at my table. “Dead bird!” I said, and pointed to the dead bird. “Oh,” the guy said. I gave him a sympathetic look. Then he did this totally crazy thing. He went over to the chair, and got on his hands and knees, cradled the bird in his palms, and went over to a patch of long grass and lay the bird in there. He pulled out a wet wipe and cleaned and sanitized his hands, and sat down at the table with his friend and continued chatting.
When he saw me stare in amazement, he said, “Lived in Vermont a bunch of years. You get dead things up there.”