The Empty Seat Next to a Famous Writer

Writer John Edgar Wideman muses in The New York Times about why the seat next to him stays empty when he rides the train between New York and Providence, R.I.

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He's an award-winning writer with a body of work that has been praised around the globe. Yet John Edgar Wideman notes that when he rides the train between New York and his home in Providence, R.I., the seat next to him stays empty until his fellow passengers have no other choice. Is it racism?

Over the last four years, excluding summers, I have conducted a casual sociological experiment in which I am both participant and observer. It's a survey I began not because I had some specific point to prove by gathering data to support it, but because I couldn't avoid becoming aware of an obvious, disquieting truth.

Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip.

I'm a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I've concluded that color explains a lot about my experience. Unless the car is nearly full, color will determine, even if it doesn't exactly clarify, why nine times out of 10, people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me.

Giving them and myself the benefit of the doubt, I can rule out excessive body odor or bad breath; a hateful, intimidating scowl; hip-hop clothing; or a hideous deformity as possible objections to my person. Considering also the cost of an Acela ticket, the fact that I display no visible indications of religious preference and, finally, the numerous external signs of middle-class membership I share with the majority of the passengers, color appears to be a sufficient reason for the behavior I have recorded.

Read the entire op-ed article in The New York Times.