Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.Reader responses to the article included this gem.
“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”
“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”
“Yes,” said the woman behind them.
“See,” the man explained gently, “this is how it works. I’m the one person who says something. But for everyone like me, there’s a whole car full of people who feel the same way.”
Recently on an Amtrak train, a fellow passenger across the aisle from me in the Quiet Car was involved in an animated cellphone conversation about a real estate transaction. The conductor came through and said: “Sir, I must ask that you refrain from using your cellphone. You are in the Quiet Car.”I wouldn't be surprised if there's a similar anecdote in Metra's "On the Bi-Level" newsletter, which would be good for several months worth of by-play between riders and the editor.
Annoyed, he looked up and said: “I can’t hear you. I’m on the phone.”
The article suggests that the Quiet Car serves as a sort of separating equilibrium, in which the mannerly people sit there, and the rabble sit in the other cars. (Now, if Amtrak would put proper first-class, formerly parlor cars, on its trains, rather than a half-car's worth of wider seating at one end of the snack bar car, perhaps we could do some real research.)
The Quiet Car is the Thermopylae, the Masada, the Fort McHenry of quiet — which is why the regulars are so quick with prepared reproaches, more than ready to make a Whole Big Thing out of it, and why, when the outsiders invariably sit down and start in with their autonomic blather, they often find themselves surrounded by a shockingly hostile mob of professors, old ladies and four-eyes who look ready to take it outside.Ronald Coase rides the rails, forsooth.
Eventually I found myself on the wrong side of the fight. I was sitting in my seat, listening to music at a moderate volume on headphones and writing on my laptop, when the man across the aisle — the kind you’d peg as an archivist or musicologist — signaled to me.
“Pardon me, sir,” he said. “Maybe you’re not aware of it, but your typing is disturbing people around you. This is the Quiet Car, where we come to be free from people’s electronic bleeps and blatts.” He really said “bleeps and blatts.”
“I am a devotee of the Quiet Car,” I protested. And yes, I said “devotee.” We really talk like this in the Quiet Car; we’re readers. “I don’t talk on my cellphone or have loud conversations — ”
“I’m not talking about cellphone conversations,” he said, “I’m talking about your typing, which really is very loud and disruptive.”
I was at a loss. I learned to write on a typewriter, and apparently I still strike the keyboard of my laptop with obsolete force. “Well,” I said, trying to figure out which of us, if either, was the jerk here, “I don’t think I’m going to stop typing. I’m a writer; I sit in here so I can work.”
He was polite but implacable. “If you won’t stop, I’ll have to talk to the conductor,” he said.
Looking around, I saw that the Quiet Car wasn’t crowded; there were plenty of empty seats. “I’m not going to leave the Quiet Car,” I told him, “but since it’s bothering you, I will move to another seat.” He thanked me very courteously, as did the woman in front of me. “It really was quite loud,” she whispered.
When the train came to my stop I had to walk by his seat again on my way out. “Glad we could come to a peaceful coexistence,” I said as I passed. He raised a finger to stay me a moment. “There are no conflicts of interest,” he pronounced, “between rational men.” This sounded like a questionable proposition to me, but I appreciated the conciliatory gesture. The quote turns out to be from Ayn Rand. I told you we talked like this in the Quiet Car.