Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Quiet Car

When I die and go to heaven, hell, just or the bottom of the East River, I hope to pull in to my destination on the Quiet Car. What is the Quiet Car? why, it's the sanctum sanctorum of contemporary travel, the new colossus for a mobile age:

...The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

So maybe it's stretching a metaphor, but it's the silent lips I'd like to discuss.

Don't we all understand silent lips? Is this an idea the performance of which actually varies over time? by situation? No, it is not. Silent lips are lips through which no utterance, meaningful or otherwise, escapes. No word, no shriek, no snore. Silent lips are the Golden Rule in the Quiet Car. To wit:

Quiet Talking Only, Please:
Customers must strictly limit conversation and speak only in quiet, subdued tones. If you'd like to carry on an extended conversation, please relocate to another car.

Mute Your Device:
Customers may not use any devices making noise, including:

cellular phones
handheld games without headphones
laptop computers with audible features enabled
portable CD or DVD players without headphones
Customers using headphones must keep the volume low enough so that the audio cannot be heard by neighboring passengers.

This is from Amtrak's web site, but in case there's any confusion, signs reading 'QUIET CAR: no cell phones, quiet conversation only' are posted every few feet, and the conductor generally announces the rules as the train pulls from the station.

Any questions?

Step outside to ask them. Please.

In the past few months, I've had occasion to travel between New York and Boston on three separate occasions. Back and forth, 6 segments. Even on the Acela, that's almost 24 hours. 24 hours on the Quiet Car. Each passenger acknowledging the inconvenience of her presence to her neighbors, all agreeing on a common illusion of solitude.

If only.

In fact, the Quiet Car seems to stimulate an adolescent compulsion that I can only hope is otherwise latent in adult passengers to break the rules because they are there. How else to explain the fact that cell phones are in common use in every Quiet Car, turned off when the conductor walks through to take tickets, occasionally scolding a less vigilant delinquent--and back on again just as soon as his back is turned? Talking, phone calling-- for all I know, break dancing and fist fights-- are invited on every other car EXCEPT for the Quiet Car, so called because it is supposed to be QUIET.

The worst offenders are not teenaged boys; in fact, I have asked two groups of chattering boys on two separate occasions whether they were aware that they were on the Quiet Car, and both looked gratifyingly stricken and apologized profusely as they gathered up their belongings and moved to another car. No, the worst are the old people, the lady with a show tune ring tone who covered her phone with her other hand and turned to the window as if, like a little child, she thought she couldn't be seen or heard by anyone she couldn't see or hear herself. When another passenger said 'excuse me, this is the Quiet Car, no cell phones', she first ignored him and then when he repeated himself, flashed a disapproving glance and said, 'it's just my daughter'. Lady, I don't care if it's just your parole officer. Take it outside. Or the man whose wife on the other end was evidently as deaf as he, who repeated his order to the entire car as the train approached the station. 'No, egg foo young, EGG FOO YOUNG!'.

And of course, that's the other thing, in and near the stations, even law-abiding passengers seem to think the rules no longer apply, as if the nearing prospect of freedom from the unnatural restrictions of the Quiet Car are too much for the most disciplined among us, and the torrents of irrelevant chatter will burst forth. And at this point, the transgressors cease even to mime their awareness of their transgressions, and a general air of relief and gaiety takes over, except in my corner, where I seethe.

And then there was one extraordinary occasion when even I was moved to utterance. In the Quiet Car (as in all the other cars, I assume), there are several sets of seats at either end arranged such that two passengers face two other passengers across a common table. I was seated in one such seat, and across the aisle, four passengers gradually found themselves seated in a similar fashion. First was a young man studying law books, and then a young woman who boarded with skis planted herself across from him and promptly fell asleep. Then another, rather large young man in a suit and shoes as shiny as his hair sat down beside the sleeping girl, and eventually an older woman sat across from him. After a time, the young man in the suit left his seat, and returned from the dining car with a cardboard box of food. Standing in the aisle, he set the box down on the table, and proceeded to remove his jacket, which he spread carefully along the back of his seat. Then, under the gathering glances of the car, he proceeded to unbutton his shirt, which he also removed, and spread with equal care across the shoulders of his jacket. At this point, attired in a wife beater for which I suppose in retrospect one might have been grateful, the astonishing fellow UNBUCKLED HIS BELT AND THE TOP BUTTON OF HIS TROUSERS. Whereupon he sat down, tucked a paper napkin into the scoop of his under shirt, and proceeded to tuck in. By now, jaws had dropped around his table (the girl slept through it all) and mine. The law student looked me in the eye and made a sheepish shrug. It was the older woman who, in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable, addressed him in ringing tones.

'ARE YOU WARM?' she asked.

He looked up, cheeks full. 'No', he said, puzzled; and then seemed to understand. 'I don't want to get anything on my new shirt'.

Mind you, this is Boston to New York in 2007, not Jacksonville to Atlanta in 1887. (And if you recognize the allusion, you'll recognize that the comparison is also inept in ways I mean to address when I write about 'Richer not Better' [Walter Michaels's The Trouble with Diversity]).

By the time he reached across the aisle and tapped my shoulder to ask, 'do you have a mint or a piece of gum'?', I was so off balance that I actually burst out laughing. I am not proud of that moment, but he didn't seem to take offense, and just proceeded to the next person.

The Quiet Car is an ideal, and perhaps one that depends on the denial of class and other more trivial differences more than I generally care to admit.

But let's take that conversation outside.

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