Taking Up Space in the Big City

  • Graphic Sam Jones

There is a man sitting next to me on this early-morning packed Orange Line Metro car, who is taking up way too much space.

It’s eight in the morning, which is rush hour, and the car is brimming, literally bursting with Montreal commuters. People have to shove themselves inside, bristling with Quebecois resentment, no one ever entirely sure how to take up space politely. Most people, anyway, are concerned enough with politely occupying themselves.

This man, however, is not.

We are in a three-seater, I on the outside and he furthest in. Between us, sit both the young man’s (who, no judgment, seems the Business-Undergrad-At-McGill-First-Year-Just-Joined-A-Frat kind of fellow) Aston Grey loafers and his large “MCGILL CREW” gym bag.

Directly next to his young, beautiful, dumb face, I watch an old woman desperately cling to an overhanging rail.

Living in a city is constantly a question of space. Your space, other people’s space, public spaces, private spaces—the management, acquisition, repurposing, syndication, or otherwise consideration, of space. Taking up space: it’s the nature of city living.

Since the question of space is constantly posed to us, we are constantly making decisions, whether conscious or otherwise, of how to operate ourselves within space; how to associate ourselves with others’ spaces. It’s a daily decision. Do I give up my seat to an old woman? Do I walk on the right side of the sidewalk, with my head up? Do I look both ways before I cross the street?

Do I take up too much room on the goddamn train?

I see people like this man everywhere. Everyone does; they are literally everywhere. These are people that, consciously or unconsciously, take up space in the worst way. Standing on the left side of an escalator, taking a phone call while walking down the center of the bike lane.

These might seem like small acts, little inconveniences thrust into other peoples’ lives, largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But I submit to you that they are not. These small little choices about how we take up space, not only say a lot about how we think of ourselves (as individuals, as a culture, as members of the West and participants in global affairs), but accumulate into the type of people we are.

Do you give up your seat, or take up two?

Do you signal on your bike?

You may not see it, but it’s true: you’re only as good as how you act, how you relate to others, how you take up space.

It’s easy to not care and I know that. There are bigger fish to fry, right? Maybe that person standing on the wrong side of the escalator is thinking about how she just lost her mother, or the guy in the seemingly unnecessarily huge SUV is actually trying to cope with his severe anxiety. I know that those are possibilities. But the reality of the situation, the capital T Truth of the matter, is that most people don’t have good excuses for their poor space-related habits. Most people are just self-involved, inundated by a culture and institutions that encourage the idea that you, and I, and we, are each the most important person in the world.

We are raised to believe that our space is the most important space, the most worthwhile place in the world and with a mentality like that, it’s no surprise that most people aren’t concerned with respecting strangers’ spaces.

But that’s not an excuse and it doesn’t make disrespect and selfishness and general unconcern with others acceptable. We are grown people, taking up space in the Big City: we ought to start acting like it.

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