Are Californians Too Nice?

I’ve been living in California for well over a decade after spending my “formative” years in Boston, where minor wars are started over rights to plowed out parking spaces after a snow storm.

Here in the Golden State, people are nice. They’re polite, so even-keeled. Voices never rise unless you happen to be behind the wheel on the 405 in LA or the MacArthur Maze in Oakland. But I’ll admit I’m getting a little tired of the love fest.

Take my daily commute on BART from Walnut Creek to Oakland. On every car, the seats near the doors are designated for seniors and persons with disabilities. I don’t have a problem with this; after all, it’s required by law, and I won’t deny that I appreciated the kindness of strangers who gave up their seats for me during both of my pregnancies.

But here in the Bay Area, the expectation bestowed upon the occupant of these seats is so great that passengers would sooner sit in a “regular” seat covered with cheese dip than risk being bumped from this “priority” seating. Not surprisingly, these are the very last seats to fill. If you’re unfortunate enough to get stuck in this predicament, you’ll be expected to distinguish a true baby bump from a little extra weight, and you’ll need the gift of clairvoyance to determine if a 60-something “senior” will be offended more by the offer of your seat or your refusal to give it up. It’s a no-win situation no matter how you slice it.

Today I had the misfortune of boarding one of these nearly-filled cars. There were actually a few regular seats available, but trying to navigate into one was like playing a game of musical chairs. Once the music stopped, there I was, next to the door. I pulled out my book, but didn’t get too comfortable. I knew that I’d have to keep one eye peeled on boarding passengers to assess their ability to stand and prepare to politely surrender my seat if needed.

A middle-aged looking woman boarded behind me and passed unnoticed, except by a younger lady sitting across from me. Being a nice young California girl, the younger woman stood up and offered her seat to the other woman, who politely declined (because she’s also a nice Californian) and moved further to the back. The young woman, not to be foiled in her quest for “Citizen of the Year” followed her and pressed her to accept the offer. By now, most passengers within earshot were attuned to their dialogue. We were all curious about the outcome, worried that we ourselves had potentially overlooked a woman in need.

The two women were now face to face, and the one being offered the seat clearly looked puzzled.  “Why are you giving your seat up for me?” she inquired. Trapped in a no-win situation (or else totally clueless), the young do-gooder whispered, “Because you’re pregnant.” I think you know where this story is going. “Actually, I’m not pregnant,” replied the other in a remarkably good-natured tone.  Yikes! I quickly returned to my book, relieved that my own foot was still solidly on the floor and not in my mouth.

The story doesn’t end here. Only one stop later, as I scanned the sea of boarding passengers for crutches, canes, and bulging bellies, a woman on the larger side came on wearing a bulky coat. She of course stood right in front of me, looking down at the book I was half enjoying. I peered up and it occurred to me that she could be pregnant – could being the operative word. It seemed equally probable that she was just on the more rotund side. After the earlier incident, I wasn’t going to chance making a total fool of myself, so feigned ignorance and returned to my reading. I reasoned too that since I was getting off in a couple of stops, she’d at least get to sit, pregnant or not, for the remainder (and majority) of the trip into San Francisco, her likely destination.

As it turns out, the woman was pregnant, based on conversation I overheard as I exited the train. As it also turns out, I guess I’m not the nice California girl I thought I had become.

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