Saturday, January 3, 2009
The Quiet Car
The other day my friend Oliver and I rode the Quiet Car from Washington, D.C., to New York City.
We were returning home from our separate Christmas visits, Oliver to a friend and a cousin, and I from my sister, Clare—my half-sister, really, through my father's first marriage; but since we've gotten closer now I think of and call her my sister. (And she is: a good sister, too.)
I decided to go to Washington for Christmas in part because I knew Oliver would be going there, and thought it might be nice for us to travel together, and keep each other company along the three hour ride.
Oliver, who can afford to, travels in style. He had already booked his round-trip fare on the Acela. Business Class. At $310 dollars, not exactly cheap (you can get a bus, I learned, from Chinatown, for $25, but then it takes six hours).
One advantage of traveling aboard the Acela: The Quiet Car. A car where no cell phones or radios of any kind are permitted, and people are expected to speak in hushed voices, where "a library-like atmosphere is encouraged." I had heard about it somewhere—on NPR, maybe, or in one of those little filler stories in the Times. I, who detest cellphones and everything to do with them, thought, "Eureka: a cell-phone free environment."
Soon as I heard of the Quiet Car I started wondering: why can't there be more things like that? Not just quiet trains, but quiet department stores, quiet gyms, quiet supermarkets, quiet restaurants and quiet cafes, quiet bars and quiet beaches. How about a quiet brothel? My mind started racing, turning over other quiet possibilities: quiet apartment buildings or floors in apartment buildings; quiet streets and even entire quiet neighborhoods and districts, quiet suburbs of quiet cities. Why not a quiet country, or at least a quiet state? (The license plate state motto: "Shhhh!") . . .
There seemed no end to quiet possibilities. Imagine a quiet radio station, one where—instead of tuning in to music and jabbering disc jockeys—you tune into sheer silence? Ditto a quiet TV station or show ("The Quiet Channel"), where the sound is pure silence and the camera pans its way through an infinite Antarctic landscape? Soon the Quiet Marketing Executive in me started spinning off subsidiary rights: quiet websites and CDs, quiet books: "Quiet for DUMMIES," "The Encyclopedia Quietus" (a Zagat-like survey of quiet places and pursuits), "National Quiet Day"("Just Say Shhhh!") . . .
Apparently Oliver and I aren't the only people in the world with a thing for silence. When the time came to board the Washington train, we found ourselves headed off by a stampede of travelers bent on contemplation. By the time we got there, not a single free seat remained aboard the Quiet Car. Ruefully we took our place amongst the noisy throng. It wasn't a bad ride; though a cell phone rang here and there, and some people were noisy, but we didn't feel that disturbed. We read our books (Oliver: "Proust was a Neurosurgeon," Peter: "Out Stealing Horses," and, when we got bored, we wandered to the cafe car, with less-than-surefooted Oliver bracing himself down the swaying aisles.
There, eating hummus and crackers and sipping tea, we sat on stools watching the dreary winter landscape roll past the windows, its melancholy compounded by the fact that, on the way to the cafe car, we had passed through the Quiet Car, through its coveted atmosphere of hushed dignity. Was it our imagination, or did the passengers there seem more sophisticated, better dressed, wealthier, and healthier? They seemed to know something we didn't know; to breathe air more refined than that inhaled by the rest of the noisy world. In its silence the Quiet Car glided more smoothly and quickly; one sensed that the passengers within would arrive in D.C. far ahead of the rest of us, that not only would they reach their destinations sooner; they would arrive refreshed and improved.
Oliver and I felt like a pair of steerage passengers who'd gained a tantalizing if dispiriting glimpse of First Class. In silence we rode the rest of the way to Washington—a silence not of our choosing, or enforced by Amtrak, but born of mortification.
* * *
On the way back home we finally got our chance. Having lined up well in advance, this time we beat the rush to silence. In the Quiet Car we stretched our legs and got out books and settled in for the journey, like settling into a warm bath.
But after a half hour or so, for some reason, Oliver found himself in a chatty mood. He wanted to discuss the distinctions between romantic and clinical description, and how these apply to writing. Oliver does this with me, uses me as a sort of sounding-board for ideas he's working on. Even if it does cast me in the role of listener, with my interjections few and far between, still, I enjoy the privilege.
I don't know how long we'd been talking--maybe five minutes, maybe ten--when a passenger materialized, crouching in the aisle so his face was level with ours, a middle-aged face, with a healthy head of thick gray hair brushed back and parted in the middle, and expensive tortoise-shell bifocals. His face was red; his eyes bulged. "Excuse me," he growled, "but you are talking very LOUDLY (his lips spelled the word out for us); this is the QUIET CAR; if you want to talk LOUDLY move to some other car. This is the QUIET CAR."
His jowls trembled; he was seething. He seemed headed for apoplexy. I remarked that I didn't think we had been talking loudly.
"Yes, yes you were talking VERY LOUDLY and this is THE QUIET CAR!!!"
The man returned to his seat. Oliver and I exchanged looks, then we buried our chastised heads in our books. But after a few moments Oliver opened the little sketch book he always keeps on him, and wrote, using one of the three colored Flairs he also keeps on hand (green, purple, red), "Was that a bit exaggerated?" He handed pen and pad to me.
"More than a bit," I wrote back. "I think we just encountered a Quiet Car Fanatic."
Oliver (writing): "A Quiet Asshole."
"A Quiet Hole."
Etc. By then we were both giggling like school kids. We couldn't help it. It was like we had both been thrown back in time, to when we were shushed by the stick-up-her-butt librarian, the one with bifocals and hair in a severe bun. From then on, the rest of the way back to New York, we kept bursting into illicit giggles. We giggled silently. After all, it was the Quiet Car.
And there's something they don't tell you about The Quiet Car: Given the proper circumstances, it can make you feel really young again. What a joy, for a change, to be the loudest people in the world. To be the instigators of noise and not its victims.
Posted by Peter Selgin at 10:57 AM