I have always been fascinated by the interplay of power in gender politics. What is more fascinating however is the various ways that these normalised images of disparity manifest in societies in ways that are so benign that they are allowed to take a seat at the head of the quotidian table. I’ve seen deference in various societies, and contrary to popular belief, it is not restricted to patriarchal societies, but is instead a universal language, it fails to be recognized however since its manifestation at the local site occurs in various shades of grey. I’ve recently borne witness to one such display in the most common of social interface, the bus, or as it is called in Buenos Aires, the collectivo.
I must pause here to give praise and say, parenthetically, that Buenos Aires is the only place I know where the bus runs on a 24 hour schedule. I have the deepest gratitude to the Argentinean government for this decision. Now, back to the matter at hand, ah, yes, politics, it was!
On the collectivo, the front seats are reserved for the physically handicapped, the aged, and for the otherwise incapacitated, such as pregnant women, and women with toddlers (and it is an interesting concept that that is considered an incapacitation).
One week ago, I entered the bus Line # 126, at Salta & Humberto primo, en route to Flores, a neighbourhood which is settled some 30 minute north of the city centre. It was late afternoon, and all the seats were taken. Within 5 minutes, of my entrance, one of the front seats became vacant, and I sat. It was a single seat on the left side of the bus. Across from me, in the double row seat, two men occupied the other two priority seats.
One man looked somewhere between his late thirty’s and mid-forty’s; a well-dressed gentleman with a tailored suit, an austere scarf tied like a cravat, and a smart briefcase which rested at his feet. His shoes spoke of an appreciation for quality goods, although the socks hotly denied the acquaintance. With folded arms and a haughty regard, his manner was uninviting and reserved.
I pondered his presence on the bus, and recalled an episode of Frasier in which his BMW was in the shop for repairs causing him to have to take public transportation; thereafter ensued an engaging tale of debacle and derision. The dress and deportment of this fellow reminded me of Frasier’s indignation at each of the encounters on this bus during his journey in this hackney carriage.
Beside him, a younger man had succumb to the exhaustion created by the impositions of the day. Unadorned and unperturbed, he tossed a blonde, cavalier head way back beyond the reaches of the seat, and allowed his effete body to be rearranged according to the vibrations and rumble of the bus. A brown leather bag lay desultorily across his limp body. The bus ploughed through the congestion of the evening traffic, punctiliously making its way to all its scheduled stops, even if only to deliver passengers to their destinations.
On one of the stops along Humberto Primo, a family of four entered. The youngest member, a pre-adolescent boy with an eager grin, bounced in and walked directly to my seat. He ame ot an abrupt halt in front of me and flashed a knowing smile. Surprised by this sudden show of congeniality in an otherwise unwelcoming environment, I failed to reciprocate. He shuffled back and forth anxiously, perhaps waiting for back-up forces, as the other family members expended time counting out their change to place into the fare slot.
The bus moved off and one of the woman-folk joined him in hovering over my seat. After a moment she addressed me in a few words of Castellano, I recognized the word for seat and guessed that her intention was for me to surrender my seat. The reason for this request was not clear to me since they were all young, healthy folks, much younger in fact than I am, but that fact would not have been evidentially clear to them.
In my usual, crisp, mono-syllablic interrogatory tone, I enquired “que?” This was my well-rehearsed Castellano, reserved for such situations. She repeated her murmurs, this time motioning to the other women who had now turned around to me as if to show me her stomach. I assumed that she was trying to indicate pregnancy, although it wasn’t obvious to me. The validity of this disposition, I didn’t care to ascertain, so I surrendered the coveted seat.
As I stood up in the bus and looked around, I pondered the dynamics of this occurrence and questioned the reasons for these actions. I finally settled on two possibilities that may have contributed to occurrence. In regards to the woman asking for the seat, either (1) she had taken the time (not too much though) to survey the situation and quickly decided that I was the best prospect to approach, and the one with perhaps the least resistance, or (2), being so predisposed to the conditioning of not challenging the men-folk, this was not even a decision that needed much processing, as in most societies, it is automatically the women who will be approached by both male and female, before the men will be challenged by either male or female.
My decision as to the reasoning weighed more towards the latter especially after I reflected on the fact that the young boy had immediately and pre-emptively selected me upon entering the bus, which led me to believe that the decision of who to challenge is not one that is consciously mitigated, but one that is indicated through cultural conditioning; a normalised practise.
Between the spaces of the swelling crowd on the bus, I could see the two undisturbed male passengers, the young man’s head had become so relaxed with the weightlessness of androcentricism that it had rolled over to one side and was exposing a dark bucal cavity created by a slack jaw. The older man beside him, despite the growing diminution of the available space around him, managed to maintain not only the integrity and structure of every crease and fibre in his grey wool-blend jacket, but also its essence of incongruity that exuded from a posture of undefiled indifference.