Last weekend I spent 24 hours in Philadelphia for the truly fantastic KNOW by Stillmotion workshop. (The tour still has quite a few stops, for anyone who’s interested – check it out!)

I grew up in a suburb about an hour north of Philly, but because my dad was from New York, and New York wasn’t that much harder to get to, the vast majority of my city experiences involved New York. Whether for better or worse, I never felt like I got to know Philadelphia.

On this trip, my time in the city was limited. Considering that of the 24 hours I spent there, 9 were in my hotel room, and 9 were at the workshop, I had a remarkable number of not-so-great experiences with the people of Philadelphia. And I certainly didn’t go looking for them.

I’m going to share just one of these, because I think it raises an interesting question about making choices and assumptions and what unexpected encounters can stem from them.

On Sunday morning, I checked out of my hotel, and soon after boarded a 7:55am train to the airport. There were a lot of people getting on the train, and they were all going to the car to the left. While I observed that the car to the right was completely empty. The door to the car to the right was closed, but I didn’t think too much of that as I certainly have opened train and subway doors many other times.

So, rather than go into the crowded car, I opened the door and sat down in the empty car. How many times have you seen everyone doing something a certain way because they’re just following along, when you realize there’s an alternative and go for that instead and then everyone follows you?

A couple minutes later a conductor came into the car and said in a voice just dripping with sarcasm, “when you have a few minutes that you can take out of your busy day, can you go join all the other passengers in the other car?” I looked around and said, “excuse me, are you talking to me?” as I sure didn’t understand what was wrong with sitting in the car I was in. In a voice of exasperation he said that yes he was talking to me. I was confused. I know that sometimes trains leave a car behind at certain stations, and they want you to move up… but, I was in the front car. (In fact, before I got on the train, the train operator was peeking his head out the window and I smiled at him and said “good morning.” He looked at me as if surprised that I could see him, like he’s invisible to most people.)

“Uhhh… was I supposed to know that I shouldn’t sit in here?” I said as I walked toward the door. He replied scathingly that a little common sense should have made it obvious. I guess to those who think you have to follow along like a sheep it’s obvious?

It was crowded in the other car, with people standing in the aisles, but I found a seat. When we arrived at the next station, the conductor told everyone that boarded “to your left, to your left, to your left.” Now that’s helpful and instructive, and had he said that within earshot of me when I boarded, I would have listened!

On Philadelphia’s SEPTA trains, you pay the conductor on board the train. So I knew I was going to get to speak to this guy again in a few minutes. I had ALL KINDS of ideas of things to say! But I decided that life was too short to be a jerk and that I would take the high road. I was looking out the window listening to Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers when I felt banging on my seat. There’s my friend!

As I handed over my fare I said, with a genuine smile, because by now I was finding this all hilarious, “would you be so kind as to give me a receipt?” He said, “oh, we are just having a wonderful relationship, aren’t we!” I said with another big smile, “well, I am over it!” He replied “that is just great. You just keep that with you wherever you go.”

I noted when I got off the train at the airport that the front car was still empty. That negated my other theory that perhaps they get so many passengers at 30th street that they leave the front car open for them. Which then moved me on to my final theory, which is that this guy is lazy and it’s easier for him to collect fares from passengers when they are more densely packed than having to walk through an additional car. And perhaps he also has to clean the train so this makes it easier for him.

So, how about you? Which way would you have gone on the train?