This column first ran in the April 2007 issue of The American Spectator. Click here to subscribe.
YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about people on trains. I spend a significant portion of my waking hours on them, either going into Manhattan on commuter rail (the MTA’s Metro North) or to Boston via Amtrak.
On the commuter trains, I’ve been impressed by how quiet and considerate most passengers are. In the mornings, they read newspapers, work on laptops, or sleep. Surprisingly, the evening trains are almost as quiet. A cell phone offender occasionally interrupts the tranquility, but the disruptions are brief.
On the long-distance Amtrak trains, things are more complex. Traveling over much longer distances, passengers converse more audibly and often. Fortunately, the Amtrak business-class train, the Acela, has a designated quiet car in which passengers are required to maintain a “library-type atmosphere,” refraining from loud conversation or cell phone use. For introverts with a passion for silence, it has to be the greatest commuting invention since literacy. I choose the quiet car whenever I ride the Acela, but things don’t always work out as planned.
A good portion of my quiet car journeys are marred by the presence of interlopers — passengers who plan to talk their way home, and should have seated themselves in one of the other cars. They do this even though they are told when entering: “You are in the Quiet Car. There are no cell phones or loud conversations in the Quiet Car.” Their flouting of such a clear mandate indicates, I think, what they must be like to work with.
I’m always struck by the anger their behavior instills in me. One secret to whatever serenity I have been able to achieve is that I have taught myself to expect a baseline level of chaos and brutishness from my daily interactions with the world. This allows me to maintain an even demeanor while also allowing for happy surprises. But in the quiet car, it is as if an earlier self is awakened, and I’m back to having expectations of people.
Often another passenger makes a citizen’s arrest and reminds the offender that he is in the quiet car. After initial hesitation, I have joined this informal militia. Sometimes the conductor disciplines the offender before we need to, but usually the masses must rise up before the sovereign will take action.
Whenever I see people boarding the quiet car in pairs or groups, I know trouble is ahead. Two or more people rarely travel together without conversing. At this point in my Acela experience, I am almost ready to intercept them on the platform before they board and invade one of the few sanctuaries left for Americans who treasure silence.
But even passion for silence can go too far. On a recent trip, one without a single offender, a rumpled and exhausted-looking man became irritated with the woman across from him working on a laptop. He was trying to sleep, he said, and urged her to “type more quietly.” Sounds of “loud” typing are not proscribed on the quiet car, needless to say, especially as most typing now, done on the soft keypads of laptops, is white noise at worst. The poor woman was probably wondering why she was being harassed for doing exactly what the quiet car requests-shutting her mouth and minding her business. Apparently this man’s baseline expectations of the world ruled out not only chaos and brutishness, but also the slightest tapping. On the quiet car, to borrow from one of Gilda Radner’s characters, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.
All of which makes me wonder why the commuter train, with no mandates, seems to achieve relative silence with minimal effort, while the quiet car, with a very specific mandate, is a kingdom in constant threat of a coup. No doubt the libertarians would have explanations.
But probably the best explanation is that for as long as there are humans, and there are signs that say “Quiet Car,” quiet will be the most difficult thing to attain.
The passenger who wanted the woman to type more quietly was eventually successful; she was so wearied by his objections that she switched to working in longhand. Her adversary wasted no time falling asleep — and began to snore.