When I get on a city bus in New York, I walk all the way to the back and, unless it's already taken, take a seat in the center of the long backseat that accommodates five passengers.

The two end seats are cramped; they are just behind the rear wheels and one has to bend the knees and put the feet on the curved casing over the wheels. The seats to the right and left of the middle are acceptable. But my choice is the center seat.

I consider it the royal seat and a prime observation base. It is central and so reigns the interior. It gives me a sense of possession of the entire space of the bus. Then, from this vantage point I have a view of the whole length of the bus and therefore the command of all the passengers and their comings and goings. For the most part I see the backs of their heads. But there are sidelong seats, too, and I can watch the passengers in these seats conversing as well as of the standees holding onto a pole or hanging on a bar. Watching people without feeling intrusive is one of the pleasures of navigating a city, especially in an ethnically varied city like New York, where Chinese and Spanish are heard as commonly as English. It's not that I can hear what they are saying; I rarely do. But I watch their kinesic behavior, their body language.

As I recall, the city bus in Tokyo when I was little had rear windows; if I turned around I could see the receding street vista. The buses in New York and elsewhere in this country are closed in the rear. Still, one enjoys from the center rear a large view of the world outside -- way in front beyond the windshield if the bus is not too crowded and also out through the windows on two sides. Seated in the center rear I command, therefore, not only the interior of the bus and the fellow passengers but also the urban scene through which the bus is moving. The change of direction, as when the bus turns a corner, is also more vividly experienced from this position. But, being central, it is also, more stable when the vehicle makes a turn; I can balance myself more easily.

The seats in the back ride a little higher; so, I can let my feet float and dangle if I want to. Or, rather, the slightly more elevated seat encourages me to do so and allows me to enjoy being a child again. This is, for me, one of the little pleasures of everyday life in the city.

In general, I prefer sitting in a moving vehicle facing the direction it is heading. Trains and trams don't have the rear center because they are designed to move in both directions. The bus is anthropomorphic; it has the front and the back. The rear center in the bus is, therefore, a privileged seat.

The bus is, however, the only instance when I prefer to take a backseat. In a lecture hall, unless I am lecturing, I take a seat in the first row. I always did since my high school days.


T. Kaori Kitao, 07.30.02


see also
Living in Manhattan

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