Americans seem to have a very legalistic approach to life – the polar opposite of Italians’ very relaxed attitudes towards the actual law, let alone life in general.
Boarding the CalTrain to go back to San Francisco, I had no idea where to put my big suitcase. On the way down I had put it on a seat, and wondered if that was allowed, but there were many seats free at the time. This train was more crowded. This bag wouldn’t fit under the seats, and there are no overhead racks (I couldn’t have lifted it up there anyway).
The first car was marked as being capable of transporting bicycles, so I got on that one and found a big open space right at the front of the seating area, completely unoccupied. I wondered vaguely if this was where people were supposed to put bikes, but didn’t think too hard about it (it had been a long week, I wasn’t thinking or noticing much at all). I put my suitcase in one corner of that open space, and sat down in a nearby seat where I could keep an eye on it.
An old lady with a wheeled walker got on some time later, and the conductors very solicitously parked it alongside my case as they helped her on board.
Then one of them asked: "Whose luggage is this?"
"Well, ma’am , did you see this sign that says it’s against federal law?" (I hadn’t, though it was a large one – tired, remember?)
"We could get a big fine."
"Where would you like me to put it?" I said this as non-aggressively as I could, though I was thinking: "You could get a fine? That’s just weird."
"There’s a baggage car two cars back."
Unlike the accomodations for bicycles and ‘passengers in need of assistance,’ the fact that there was a car designated for baggage had not been clearly denoted along the platform. I would have had to walk back two cars, dragging the suitcase. The conductors did not insist on this, but I found it amusing – and somewhat irritating – that my wrongdoing was chided in terms of "we could get fined." Why not just say: "If this space is needed for a handicapped passenger, you’ll need to move your suitcase." Which of course I would, gladly and immediately – surely that would be the minimum of civilized behavior?
However, the way the rebuke was phrased made me feel that the assumption was that I would behave like a jerk unless bludgeoned by threat of a fine (though there was an interesting twist: they, the railway employees, would get fined. Was this supposed to engender sympathy?)
America lives by legal threats and lawsuits. An outdoor dinner was given for attendees of another event at the hotel where we were having a conference. One of the guests fell down somehow. A server rushed inside to a lobby phone and called security: "He’s not hurt, but I have to report it." Two security guys in dark suits, with walkie-talkies, converged on the scene, one carrying a clipboard with a questionnaire that he required the guest to answer. I suppose the point was to get an immediate statement and signature, before the guy had time to think about how to turn a minor accident into an opportunity to sue somebody. The Cover-Your-Ass nation: Whatever happens, make sure you can’t be blamed for it.
What do you think? am I reading this all wrong?