I’m not on the train as much as I used to be, but hauling back and forth between DC and New York is still a reasonably common occurrence. I absolutely love the train, generally speaking – it seems like the last form of public transportation that I legitimately enjoy. I’m sure part of it is the vestige of frontier romance, but there’s also the comfortable seating and the ease with which I can change my reservations to react to what else is going on. Probably more than anything, I love that I can tote more than 3.5 ounces of liquid (I like to bring 16-ounce containers onboard with me) without submitting to a cavity search.
I’ll put up with problems cropping up cheerfully because they generally don’t. The last time I went home from New York, I took the regional and settled in for a nice four-hour ride. Instead, half an hour outside Philadelphia, we ran someone over and came to a stop. We sat on the tracks for about 45 minutes, until another train came along and took us all on board like we were on a sinking luxury liner, and ferried us to Philadelphia, where we waited another hour and a half, listening to stories from the people on our rescue train about the chunks of suicide all over the place as they caught up to us. A third train finally got me home, bedraggled and four hours late. And that STILL didn’t sour any of the excitement I felt the next time I showed up at Union Station to listen to them announce “all aboard” over the intercom.
When I started locomoting regularly about a year ago, one thing threatened to interfere with my enjoyment for a while. I get on and I want to be left alone. Out of the entire train, there is one car where you arent’ allowed to talk: the quiet car. Officially, it is supposed to be “a library-like atmosphere” and the signs exhort passengers to “Please refrain from loud talking or using cell phones.” Common usage on the car, though, is to enforce basic silence. I think I speak for everyone in that we feel justified that there should be one place, even on public transportation, where those of us raised not to air our dirty laundry or impress everyone with the importance of our lives can go for a little peace after accomplishing our mission wherever we’re coming from.
Nevertheless, the police dogs frisking up and down the aisles don’t screen for boors. I’ve ridden dozens of times over the last year, and I honestly can’t remember a single time when someone hasn’t gotten on the train and started squawking at their seatmate or into an iPhone. While I was still getting used to the train, and being a generally law-abiding person, I used to get huffy. I stopped short of dramatic sighs or other passive-aggressive tricks, but it upset me to see that the cluelessness of a few people would neutralize the refuge Amtrak has tried to give those who have to travel. It didn’t take me long to understand that the louts who didn’t value the “quiet” in the quiet car had about five minutes before they got their asses handed to them. They may think they’re more important than anyone else on the car, but they aren’t tougher than all of us.
I’m glad I didn’t become the Quiet Crusader early, so I could watch that happen. Only once have I ever asked someone to quiet down, and I pitched it as advice – about six months ago, an older woman who’d made grandmotherly eyes at me was sitting and rambling in that half-deaf volume that suggests she’s trying desperately to be audible to herself. On the pretense of going to the cafe car, I stopped and turned on the charm.
“Ma’am,” I said as nicely as I could. “I hate to say this to you, but you seem nice and I’ll put it much more politely than most people here would.” I gestured up to the ubiquitous signs hanging from the ceiling. “This is the quiet car and people get pretty touchy about noise. Just wanted to let you know so you didn’t run afoul of the other passengers.”
I don’t know; maybe she thought she was whispering. This woman glared at me and told me I was “a very rude young man.” I shrugged and continued on for a beer. It was about another 15 minutes before the man in the seat in front of her couldn’t take any more. He bolted upright, turned in one frantic motion, and practically screamed at her, “Stop it! Stop it! Would … you … stop it!” I just giggled.
So instead of becoming the pill that poisons my love of the train, over time I’ve enjoyed seeing a group mentality emerge where people enforce the one rule that brought them all together. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the ride, listening to someone’s inane conversation and having my little countdown until someone steps up to the plate. Hey there, Mr. Vocal, you’re about to get regulated. “We the People” is still alive and well somewhere.