Very quiet adventures in the very quiet car

Penn Station is a terrible building but it has its small charms: newsstands that carry quite a lot of magazines, an old-fashioned departure board with moving parts, and a few comfortingly familiar folkways. People stand and watch the board, for instance, and then, despite the fact that Amtrak doesn’t oversell trains, the instant the board says “METROLINER WASHINGTON BOARDING 12W”, the crowd surges toward gate 12 as if this were the last train out of a war zone.

I’m an absolute shark in these waters, because usually when I’m getting on a train, I’m going to be there a good long time, and I want a window seat so I can 1) lean against the window when it’s time to sleep, which isn’t comfortable but should be, and 2) more easily plug my phone in since no matter how many books I bring, all I ever do on a train trip is read the Harper’s Index, do the Times puzzle, and then sink into the spiritual quicksand of the smartphone FOREVER.

Lately, there’s another factor that finds me cutting off the elderly and disabled to make sure I’m near the front of the clumpy non-line thing that forms around the beleaguered gate agent. It is the quiet car I speak of. (And then I speak no more.)

The Times had an article about the quiet car, or maybe I should go ahead and capitalize it: The Quiet Car. The regrettable pull quote that makes everyone who rides The Quiet Car seem like Roderick Usher or the alternate universe librarian version of Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life, by association: “Respecting shared public space is becoming as quaintly archaic as tipping your hat to a lady, now that the concept of public space is as nearly extinct as hats, and ladies.” Does anybody still wear a hat? But truly. Respecting public space is not that mousy a thing to wish for.

I love quiet. Well, I just like it sometimes. I like being able to have it. I think what has happened is that I live in a city where much of your day is spent in situations where there can be no reasonable expectation of existing in your own soundspace, so I’ve basically gotten completely psychotic about something I was originally just a little uptight about.

The sound of bachata from a leaky pair of headphones that overrides my own musical choices at this point spurs bloody fantasies in me. I spend absurd sums at the 2-3 restaurants in my neighborhood that don’t have a television playing sports at all times. Every time I walk out the doors at the end of the long echoing tunnel out of my subway station, I feel like the chorus of prisoners in Fidelio who are released and see the sunlight for the first time in, well, ok, in this case 45 minutes. (Oh, whatever. I hate Fidelio.)

Part of the problem is that there’s a, to me, counterintuitive social contract that you can’t say anything because you don’t want to stop anyone from banging their own fucking drum. I broke this contact once. A guy was riding an uncrowded C train with me and had his music playing through his phone’s speaker. I said, in as honeyed a tone as I could muster “do you have any headphones?” He turned a deadish, hateful gaze on me and said “could you knit somewhere else?” It’s times like these when I wish I were 6’2″ and not knitting a dainty lace-pattern cravat and people had at least some fear that I might kick their ass.

Like the Times columnist, I recently got shooshed on the Quiet Car. I wasn’t using my cell phone, but I struck up a quiet conversation with the woman beside me. Quiet conversation is a Quiet Car grey area, it seems to me. I guess what I looked like to the shoosher was those people on my subway line that I always give a futile withering glare* and to whom I want to say “she’s sitting right next to you. I think she can hear you fine without you should yell.” Quiet is relative.

You begin to wonder what behavior runs absolutely no shoosh risk. Knitting needles occasionally click, and I’ve come to suspect I am not the world’s quietest chewer. I said to the person I was shooshed with, “do you mind if I eat here?” and she said “of course not!” like I was slightly nuts, which I took to mean she on the Quiet Car but not of the Quiet Car. This turned out to be true. She had sat there because there were no seats elsewhere.

It turns out to be ok to be shooshed on the Quiet Car. It’s reassuring really, because then you can tell yourself you’re just someone who likes a little rest from the noise of the city and not a total quiet fundamentalist and OMG I kind of left off in the middle of a sentence I was typing at work and then came home on an A train where a guy was playing (standing up!) the Bach cello suites which, don’t get me wrong, I’ve known and loved since I was in high school but SHUT UP I WANT TO LISTEN TO THE NEW VAMPIRE WEEKEND. It’s not about quiet. It’s about choice. That didn’t totally make sense or loop back to the Quiet Car, but it sounded like a conclusion so let’s call it a blog entry!

*I am afraid I have built up such muscle in my withering glare that when I move to California, where everyone isn’t wholly inured to anything short of gunfire, it may kill people.

5 responses to “Very quiet adventures in the very quiet car”

  1. T-Mo says:

    Okay, okay, I know it’s all “you shoulda said,” but I can’t help myself: “Yeah, I could knit in your heart! These things go right through the ribcage, real nice.”

    Getting shushed on the quiet car is totally bad-ass. You go.

    P.S. You’re moving to SF, which is pretty much the NYC of California, what with the up-close interactions on public transit and in the streets. You’ll be fine.

  2. Smearcase, Mr. says:

    I could knit in your heart is the most hilarious threat ever.

  3. LP says:

    Smearcase, you have already knitted in all our hearts, you sweet man.

  4. Ivy says:

    My partner wears a hat, and he is utterly convinced he is starting a revival. Sometimes I agree with him. Unfortunately, with his odd ancestry of Italy via Chile he looks somewhat mafioso, but whatever.

    Knit like the wind. It makes me irate that knitting is a no go on planes!

  5. Farrell Fawcett says:

    As someone who just got off an Amtrak train just a few hours ago, this post gets PERFECTLY at the weird culture of riding the East Coast rails. Thank you!! I avoided the Quiet Car tonight, as I always do now, since that awkward trip a few months ago when I experienced a similar case of public scolding. Fuck that church. And as I played Vampire Weekend I relished the fact that I could have my own moment of karaoke and air drumming to “Worship You” without banishment. In fact all the other riders busy talking on their phones or making out didn’t give a holy shit what kind of ruckus I was raising. It was sublime.