Riding the Quiet Car
Updated: Apr 8
“Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane.
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain.”
Bernie Taupin / Elton John
“Daniel is traveling tonight on a train…” It’s not as romantic as Bernie Taupin’s original lyric, is it? There used to be a romance associated with air travel. Daniel was flying off to Spain, at night, embarking upon adventure, reclining in his seat, with an abundance of legroom. City lights slipped by - miles below the smooth jetliner. Like a sailing ship, leaving a distant port of call - the clink of silverware and the smell of dinner being served. People laughing - getting to know each other. Maybe you’ll take off your shoes. Go ahead and have a nice nap after dinner. This is a comfortable and spacious place. The friendly skies.
This is a very different image from my recent flight on Jet Blue, in the second to last row - near the lavatory, right next to the aisle where I had to keep dodging the drink cart with my knee and my chest. They forgot to put legroom in my seat, and reclining was not something I did – but instead, something that happened to me – by the cold necessity of the passenger in the row ahead of me, and I don’t think Elton John would have written a song about this. Unless it was one of his slower ballads that helps you deal with heartbreak and claustrophobia: “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” Or maybe, “Sacrifice.” The angry babies and grandparents, and the beaten down travelers, packed in together with optional-purchased legroom and those trail mix “lunch boxes” - also for purchase. I wouldn’t describe any of this as romantic. As Elton says, “It’s a human sign, when things go wrong.”
If things have gone wrong with air travel, I’m not sure where that leaves us with train travel. Not a good place, is what I’m thinking. Anyway, it’s where I am right now – Amtrak from Boston to Washington, DC. And it’s not the Acela – it’s the grumpy, lumbering older uncle of the Acela – the Northeast Regional. Have you seen it? Or maybe heard it rolling by your house at almost 30 miles per hour? The conductor’s messages come across the PA system with the warmth of standardized test proctors, quasi-barking at us while they “welcome us aboard” and declare that “you must have a business class ticket in order to sit in the business class section.”
Because we chose the Northeast Regional, our trip from Boston to DC will take us approximately 8 hours. Had we taken the high speed Acela train, that trip would have taken us just 7 hours. I don’t understand this time-logic. It’s like the regular plane gets you from New York to London in 6 hours, whereas the high speed, expensive supersonic plane gets you there in 5 hours and 45 minutes. I can make dinner in one hour, at a normal speed, but if you pay me more money, I’ll do high-speed dinner preparation in 55 minutes!
When you’re on a train for more than eight hours, it’s a good time to reflect on your life – to think about the good things and the bad, the mistakes you‘ve made – the things you could’ve done differently, since departing earlier that morning. The hours roll by, passing through Providence, Kingston, New London, Old Saybrook, etc. Idle thoughts come and go: “Why didn’t I get more mustard for this hot dog, when I had the chance? The café car is four cars up, and I don’t want to make that long, stumbling walk again – it’s frightening to step between the cars, and I don't like the way I fall on people when I’m making my way up the aisle. I would hate to fall on that same nice woman again – it would be so awkward, just like it was the first time. March is definitely not really spring, is it? It’s supposed to be spring by now, but there’s no way that's spring that I'm seeing out that window.”
On this day, I’m seated in the quiet car, which seeks to maintain a “library-like atmosphere,” as the conductor reminds us at every station stop, looking into my eyes with an east coast gruffness, just daring me to say something too loudly. When you’re in an actual library, you’re aware that you might get hushed by an older, matronly librarian – a sweet, little old lady, perhaps, if I may invoke a stereotype. But here, in this Amtrak-library-atmosphere, I’m actually afraid for myself, if I talk too loud. Tony the Conductor looks like he knows how to handle himself in any good library scuffle.
And I wonder - who enforces the rules of the quiet car? Nobody really knows, exactly. Is there a court, or is there a special Amtrak Tribunal, where you have no rights, like with the captain of a ship and the Law of the High Seas? Can they just throw you overboard in Providence? How would I get to DC if I were forcibly removed from the train, and what would my family think of me, when I told them how I was kicked off Amtrak? Why didn’t I just suck it up and take I-95? They would ask.
The burly conductors and my fellow passengers are not in a festive mood today. So, I don’t say anything. Nobody does. We just stare straight ahead, and think about the freedom that people are enjoying in the car ahead of us, where they’re allowed to talk, or even the café car, where people are laughing and partying at a table with beer and hot dogs. None of those simple pleasures are intended for us here in the silent car - just stoically enforced silence, with Tony the Conductor walking the beat. And then you start to think it’s normal. You get used to the quiet car, with its dystopian library rules.
“What happened to uncle Richard? Why did he stop speaking?”
“Oh, Richard? He rode the quiet car from New Carrollton to Philadelphia – and he just really got used to it. I mean - he adapted, you know. He still lives with us, of course, but we never hear a word. He wrote me a letter yesterday from the living room, where he expressed how he’s never been happier, actually. We’re pretty happy with it too, quite honestly, so we’re not overthinking it too much – just enjoying the quiet.”
The quiet car is an evolving sociological experiment in American vigilantism. This is one of the few environments left where Americans are called upon to hush up their fellow citizens, routinely and proactively. If you think about the number of travelers in our country at any given moment, it’s a good bet that someone is being hushed right now, in a quiet car somewhere on a distant rail, from New Haven to Trenton. We don’t hush people on airplanes so much, because there aren’t designated ‘quiet cabins,’ and I don’t usually hush the people in my car (there was that one time, yes - but it was necessary), and I almost never hush people on the subway, because that would be strange. But here in the quiet car, hushing is quite common - even expected. Obviously, the conductors on the train represent the law while on the rails, but they’re often absent – busy doing something on another car, so you’re left in a Hobbesian State of Nature for most of the ride, and this is where it gets kind of wild and unpredictable. It’s interesting to watch as new passengers board, some unwittingly wandering into the quiet car, oblivious to what they’re getting themselves into. They don’t notice all the placards with the hand symbol for ‘Hush up,’ and so they just think, “Oh, this is a nice, cozy train environment! Everybody’s so diligent here! Why don’t I grab a seat and get comfortable, maybe do some work or read a paperback…” And so they sit down, and pull out their laptop, and within a few minutes, their cell phone rings, and so they answer it, as people do – and that’s when things get heated.
“Excuse me, this is the quiet car!” The vigilante across the aisle steps in, with a glare and a sharp tone, and justice is swift.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t realize that…” This is the typical response - the civilized response - and the one that I just saw play out in Amtrak reality, just a few stops ago. And that’s it. The phone call is over. Because nobody is above Amtrak’s code of silence.
Not everybody is so gentle or concise with their vigilantism. How you enforce the silence in your own quiet car is totally dependent upon your personality, and how much pent up rage you carry along with you on any given day. I have a friend who is an impressively loud talker, by nature, and he’s never been well suited to quiet places with library-like atmospheres, despite our best efforts to rein him in; he does better at sporting events, rock concerts, and construction sites. He’s an exuberant conversationalist, with a streak of Irish blarney and unpredictable body language, and so it was that one day he unknowingly wandered into the quiet car (once again - ignoring the placards), and fatefully struck up a loud conversation with the passenger beside him, much to the offense of another man – a quiet and pent up man – with no patience for anything involving noise. My friend recalls vividly the pent up man turning to him, and releasing all those issues and emotions that were previously so pent up for all those years - blasting him with the following admonition: “THIS. IS. THE. QUIET. CAR. MAN! STAND. DOWN!!!!” Imagine a librarian shaking your table and shouting at you with a red face of old testament righteousness, as she tells you to "Get the hell out of this library - right now! I really mean it!”
The quiet car exists because cell phones in enclosed public spaces force you into places that you don’t want to be. Not so long ago, I rode Amtrak in one of their regular cars, where the people were still allowed to speak, and it’s hard not to tune into cell phone conversations, because phone people project more, and articulate more clearly than non-phone people, who have body language and whispers available to them. And while I tried not to eavesdrop, it was very difficult, given the volume and emotionally intense nature of these phone conversations swirling about me. One minute, I was right there with a man during a job interview or perhaps a financially-themed family gathering, where he kept mentioning “proactivity and increased sales, of course, Robert…” and the next minute, I was alongside a mother and her daughter having a vividly salacious conversation about “Chris and the weekend plans for Lake Tahoe, which WOULD NOT include Ethan, ever again!” There I was - bouncing between worlds that I did not choose as the train vibrated and careened down the northeast corridor, trying not to spill my Pepsi, becoming increasingly angry at Ethan.
There’s only seven hours left until we reach Union Station, so I should probably get going. Have a nice day, and please remember to maintain a library-like atmosphere as you move through your day. Unless you’re seated in the cafe car - in which case - rock on! I’ll be joining you there in just a minute.
Carl McCoy, copyright 2020
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