PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The trams in Prague are rather treacherous. They’re extremely efficient as far as getting where you’re going, but as opposed to the calculated ramps of the NYC subway system that exploit gravity to accelerate us smoothly under the city streets, the trams here scoot jerkily along the surface topography. It’s the difference between a submarine and a speed boat. Jolted into motion by overhead electric currents, they barrel up hills and wind around the Vltava river, halting at stops like a roller coaster lurching unceremoniously into the final brake run after having performed its task. There is no walking in straight lines in Prague, as street intersections are bordered with curved guard rails that force pedestrians a few meters—or entire blocks—out of their way to ensure they don’t get clipped by the unstoppable trams.
I didn’t even attempt to sit down the first few times I rode the tram. It wasn’t that I was grossed out wondering which MRSA strains could be lurking in the upholstery like I am when I ride the BART. Rather, as soon as I stepped on and felt the initial lurch, I was so surprised by the degree of arm strength I had to exert in order to not topple into the people around me that I instantly feared for the safety of those older and less able-bodied than me.
In NYC, I used to make a game out of not touching the railings when no seats were free. Here, even the most solid surfing stance is no match for the tram; full-palm contact with the yellow overhead bars is an inevitability. I’m pretty sure that’s how I caught a cold last week. But it was worth it, because over the past three weeks here, I’ve found the social hierarchy that spontaneously emerges on these triage trams to be quite remarkable.
If a train car is full, one’s ability to sit is determined only by the absence of anyone weaker. The elders don’t ask anyone to get up; the response is compulsory. They wander on looking a bit dazed and a moment of worry barely has time to furrow their brows before whoever is sitting nearest the entrance gets up and makes a gesture of offering. It’s not just the elderly who get the seats, but I’ve gathered that spry youngsters will defer to anyone who is any bit older than them, or carrying more stuff, or has squirming babies, or is just generally looking a bit frazzled. It’s an extremely conscientious protocol, which was driven home to me when a woman who couldn’t have been older than 40 got on and lifted me from my seat with a single entitled glance. I don’t believe anyone would have moved for her on the ride-at-your-own-risk NYC subway, land of the manspread. But here, it’s as if every passenger is mentally running a background calculation of “who’s more likely to fall over and break a hip” for every rider that steps aboard.
Of course in any place with accessible public transport, priority seating is given to people bound to wheelchairs and other mobility aids, then to the elderly and pregnant women. In Japan I was amused to see an icon delegating seats to those with “emotional disturbance,” illustrated by a humanoid figure, head hung, with a broken heart inside his chest. In Prague, the tiers of seat surrender are so complex that some days I wouldn’t sit even if the train was half empty, figuring that I’m young and healthy and so pretty much at the bottom of the list, and just to avoid the possibility of zoning out and offending an elder. I wondered what would happen on a tram car of all senior citizens.
This past Saturday morning after a long night out exploring after hours speakeasies and wandering aimlessly with a new friend in the morning light, I boarded a tram back to my hotel and was relieved that it was mostly empty so I could sit, guilt-free. Moments later, I watched two of the oldest people I have ever seen walking around unaided by a caretaker board the train and sit down across the aisle from me. They were moving at such a snail’s pace, as the wife loaded the husband’s wheelchair into the tram and set the parking break, that I was worried they wouldn’t make it to a seated position in time, but thankfully the conductor had noticed them and waited to speed off until they were both seated. The babushka sat with her arm protectively around her husband, both their gray heads bowed from the weight of gravity that had sunken their spines over the decades.
I was unexpectedly moved by their presence so much that I felt my eyes start to swell. I felt lucky to glimpse such a profound and fleeting slice of humanity. What subtle evidence of the beauty of this society where these two barely kicking ancients could confidently traverse their city, trusting that its youth would look out for them. A topple would have certainly been lethal for this pair, but they had so much faith in their system that they would risk all for a short journey, perhaps knowing that it wasn’t a risk at all. And how much she must have loved her husband to be barely mobile herself and still using every bit of her minuscule strength to assure that her slightly weaker counterpart was safe in his commute. Such a love has been alien to me so far in this life, and I used to tell myself I wasn’t interested in it. But in that moment, I considered that perhaps I’d changed over the past few years into someone who maybe would want to grow old with someone like that, exploring together until the very last moment we were physically able. And for maybe the first time in my life, I allowed myself to believe that maybe I would find it, eventually.
Two stops later, the doddery duo crept to the tram door. I held my breath as the the woman carefully placed her husband, centimeter by centimeter, onto the pavement and then went back for his chair, rolling it finally to the pavement before the doors swung shut behind her. He was bracing himself on a sign with a shaking hand, lowering himself in slow motion into the chair she held steady behind him as the tram roared away and they passed forever out of my field of vision.