In college I was lucky enough to spent a quarter in Rome. I learned about the Arch of Titus, the Forum of Augustus, and Baldassare Castiglione.
And I learned how to treat every mass transit ride like a game of sardines.
On Roman streetcars, or "trams," morning commuters don't utter a word of frustration as their fellow humans cram onto the cars at each successive stop. While it struck me as a little gross the first time, there was a certain sense of safety in numbers, With so many people, it was unnecessary even to hold onto a bar or handle; fall over a little bit, and the compression of your fellow riders in the car would keep you from crashing to the floor, or even moving more than a few inches.
Last Tuesday afternoon, the eye of an epic blizzard neared the city of Chicago. As I waited for one, two, then three Red Line trains to arrive at the Monroe station, I found myself wishing that Chicago commuters would take a tip or two from their Roman counterparts. One train operator told the hundreds of people on the platform that they flat-out were not allowed to board the train, and would just have to wait for the one right behind him. Seven minutes later, when the next train came, passengers near the doors hissed at those trying to cram in, rather than packing further into the car themselves.
When I did finally get on a train, the first stop (Lake) was even busier than Monroe had been, and still those who'd just gotten on with me tried to prevent additional people from boarding, rather than sucking it up (and in) and pushing toward the side. Meanwhile, a few feet away, there was an empty inside seat staring me in the face. This was really bad – not only did riders not want to crowd together, they didn't even want to ask a guy to scoot over so they could use the other seat!
Spotting space in the sides of the cars, a few enterprising boarders got up the nerve to tell off Mister "None Shall Pass" at the front doors. Once some communication started up, we were able to make room for at least ten more people. I was relieved when I alit at Chicago and State, where , just as in the Loop, the platform was totally full of people waiting to board. In a hurry, stressed, and lacking the time or authority to break out the cattle prod, our poor train operator spoke to the masses in uneqivocal terms: "Step away, this train is going to start moving." She was no doubt hoping that nervous travelers would take a different cue from Rome's dolce vita handbook and just relax.