Confessions of a Man-Spreader

by: Shiloh Whatley

One man’s response to the MTA’s unusual campaign against men who spread their legs too wide…

I‘ll admit it…I’m a man-spreader. When I ride the New York City subway, be it the F-train on my way back home from work or the 6-train to transfer Uptown, I spread my legs, sometimes wide, in my seat. It’s not an intentional move. I have no agenda or desire to lay claim to as much of the bench space as possible. It’s just how my body naturally falls. What can I say, I’m a big guy. To some, this may not be such a huge deal. But to the bureaucrats of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and to some of my more vocal, fellow New Yorkers, those who consider themselves the guardians of the unspoken subway etiquette, I am a problem. A pariah. A symbol of the thoughtlessness and sense of entitlement that Men have for this world.

Recently, the MTA launched a new awareness campaign called Courtesy Counts. And its tagline? Manners Make A Better Ride. This claptrap slogan reeks of something my Polish grandmother would say to me as I ate her homemade pierogies as a kid, drowning them in copious amounts of sautéed onions and sour cream. I can almost picture her in my mind now as I ride the subway and stare up at the unavoidable advertisements for the MTA’s new campaign plastered all over the subway cars.

“Manners make a better ride Shiloh!” she shouts to me from the nearby kitchen, the perpetual wooden spoon in her bony hand pointing scoldingly in my direction. And as I read those words splayed across the subway car and her voice echoes within my head, I look down and notice how wide my legs have spread. How on a bench made to fit three adults, my “manspread” legs have reduced the number to two. Or maybe two and a small child, or a very thin adult. I didn’t even know this was a thing until the MTA gave it a name and thus, a life. Apparently, the term “manspreading” first appeared in the public debate when a feminist anti-manspreading campaign was started on the social media website Tumblr in 2013 and almost immediately, the validity of the term was questioned. And on a packed, rush hour F-train or Downtown 6, where seats and personal space are in high demand, I get the sense that I am now suddenly the enemy. The selfish man hogging up bench space, keeping my fellow commuters from resting their work-weary bones.

But I say fuck all this nonsense. Considering the overabundance of problems the MTA is currently facing (budget shortfalls, increasing ridership as on-time train performance and the quality of commuting declines, decaying infrastructure, rising subway fares, etc.), is this really an appropriate allocation of their resources? Is this really the battle they wish to wage? I mean seriously. The subway station I take each morning from Brooklyn on my commute into work is a run-down, grimy-ass, hole in the ground and the station I get out at every day in Manhattan – Lexington & 63rd – is the deepest station in the city, and rarely do any of the escalators that pull me from the hellish depths of Gotham ever work. So why the foray into etiquette MTA? Is this just a smoke and mirror campaign to distract us riders from the shit-show that is our daily commute? Is scolding me for spreading my legs really going to cut down on all the homeless people’s aggressive panhandling that goes hand-in-hand with my daily commute? Is making me feel self-conscious every time I ride the train going to change the fact that it now costs $2.75 a ride (That’s $5.50 a day! $27.50 a week!! $110 a month and rising!!!) to experience all this “courtesy” you so want to promote? I seriously doubt it.

But listen, I’m not the bad man. I’m not the person you should be targeting. As someone who takes the subway upwards of five-hundred times a year, I can honestly tell you you’ve got bigger fish to fry MTA. How about the whole, over-budget 2nd Avenue subway line you’ve been working on for what seems like forever, or at least 1929, when the mega-expansion was first proposed? Or how about the fact that you have racked up $32 billion in debt, with almost a fifth of your yearly operating budget going towards debt repayment? I find it hard to take your efforts to be a voice for good manners and good behavior everywhere seriously. Especially when you most certainly are going to screw me over in the near future. Specifically by making me pay more money for less service once you realize that you can make me and my fellow riders shoulder more of the burden of your gross mismanagement of funds.

So why should I be vilified when so much of the problem lies with you MTA? I’m the good guy. The least of your worries. I’ll happily hold the door open for others, let those last few hurried commuters rushing down the staircase catch the train. I’ll gladly offer up my seat to an elderly or pregnant woman as I commute home. I’ll even go so far as to scold others for not giving up their seats to those in need. But this incursion into all aspects of the subway experience has got to stop. Do you know that this ridiculous advertising campaign cost the MTA $76,000 dollars of taxpayers hard earned money? If you wanted me to keep my legs tightly closed, never expanding beyond the width of my elbows or shoulders, then you shouldn’t have made so many of the trains have benches instead of individual seats. THAT would’ve been a better appropriation of your resources MTA. A seat I can get behind. A seat makes sense to me. Look around a full subway car with all its well-defined seats, and you can every time guess how many people will be seated. But with a bench, where the confines of exactly where my body should be placed when I sit, the delineation is not as clear. It’s the Wild West of subway seating. That’s just the nature of benches. And therein lies the MTA’s dilemma.

It’s comical to me that the MTA is choosing to tackle manspreading, especially when some people flat-out lay down on the subway train benches from time to time…and fucking sleep. That’s real. That shit happens. Someone taking up room for three or four people by sleeping seems like a more worthy target than someone giving themselves an extra few inches. But you know what, BOTH of these are ridiculous targets. Use your resources on shit that matters! And don’t even get me started on those assholes out there in the world who take pictures of men like me, with my manspread legs and publicly shame them on social media. That’s shits just cold!

Look, I’m not here to say that I’m selfish. That I’m defending how I sit. I man-spread, I get it and I’m sorry. There I said it. For all the men out there, both tall and wide, I apologize, despite the fact that this campaign reeks of a thinly-veiled prejudice against big men like me. And what about everyone else? People come in all shapes and sizes. Some wider than others. Some taller or thinner than their fellow New Yorkers. What about them? I’ve seen large people take up an entire bench themselves, leaving barely any space for a person to squeeze in on either end. I’ve seen two huge people crammed into a bench with a poor, smallish and wide-eyed, massively uncomfortable woman jammed in between. I’ve seen all manner of madness and chaos as I ride the New York City subway day in and day out and I just want to know when the hell did I become the enemy? Courtesy counts? Hell yeah it does! I just don’t expect to be taking ethical and situational advice from a transportation authority, that’s all. Especially one as laughable as the MTA. I like my life lessons like I like my perigois, small, and bite-sized and delivered with a spoonful of love from my sweet, sweet grandmother. Not from an overreaching, bloated and bureaucratic entity like the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

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