It’s the Quiet Car, not

It’s the Quiet Car, not the Luddite Car

The first car of each Amtrak train, these days, is set aside to be the “quiet car”: no cellphones, no loud talking, no electronic devices without headsets. It’s a great rule, mostly because the ethics of cellphone use aren’t very nuanced yet. For example, I personally feel that if someone is talking on their phone at a conversational volume, it’s fine: it’s only when people develop cell-phone yell that things get annoying. Particularly if they turn out to be stupid: “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? I’m not arguing that with you!”

So the quiet car gives people that hate cell phones somewhere to go, which reduces the amount of glaring on the train. And, if the big ox in the seat next to you persists in shouting for forty-five minutes, as sometimes happens (“Artie, I know he can get the job! But can he do the job?”), you can always move to a seat in the front of the train.

Rush hour complicates things, as there’s not enough room for everyone to choose their car, and a Venn diagram of hard feelings results. Friday evening, the train is packed, and the Nokia ring elicits a circle of turned heads, irritated frowns, and immediate shushing, just like an irritant in a big aluminum oyster. The conductors are often asked to repeat the quiet car announcement several times during the trip, and (since the policy is new), the words sometimes vary:

Ladies and gentlemen, if you can hear the sound of my voice, you are in the quiet car, the first car of the train. Please, no cellphones, no electronic devices without headphones, no loud talking, thank you.”

Opinions differ, I guess, about just what constitutes appropriate behavior in the quiet car. I spent twenty minutes finishing The Menace From Earth on Tuesday night, then I pulled my laptop out of its sleeve to check mail. The previous Metroliner had been delayed, so the train was packed, and I had found a seat in the first car.

The guy next to me — forties, five ‘o clock shadow, rolly suitcase, single-trip ticket to Washington — stirred immediately. “I’m sorry, this is the quiet car”, he said to me, and I could see the whole conversation playing out in my head. Unfortunately, he stuck to the script. “It doesn’t matter if your computer doesn’t make any noise, this is the quiet car!” I continued to demur, and he threatened to get the conductor. Then he got up and left in a huff, leaving a Cone of Silence in the two-seat area around us.

Sure enough, he returned to his seat triumphant, and the conductor repeated his announcement in a tired tone: “Ladies and gentlemen… no electronic devices… no loud talking, thank you.” Crap! He forgot to say “without headphones!” I got up, not meeting the victorious glare of my seatmate, and found the head conductor Don*, who came in and explained to the guy that yes, “Quiet car” referred to noise, not to the simple presence of consumer electronics. Luddite Man sulked, then huffed (“No, frankly, I don’t understand!”), then picked up his overnight bag and stormed off to another seat when we reached Trenton (passing about five other laptops on the way down the car.)

I have a hot temper when it comes to stupid stuff like this (viz. my stupid, stupid decision to CONQUER AND OCCUPY the seat that a horrible mother-and-son couple had been defending with passive-agressive sighs and eye-rolling), and so I had a standing order to myself to remain calm, to speak to the issue and only to the issue, and not try to pull rank by waving my monthly ticket or ostentatiously referring to the conductors by name, then wiggling my eyebrows. Check, check, and check; I felt like I managed to avoid acting like Pissy White Man. But I found myself wondering why a “Quiet Car” ban extended to laptops, in my seatmate’s mind. Was it the clicking of the keys? The anticipated loud, nerdy laughter when I check in with my friends on the FurryMUD BBS?

Maybe the guy’s train was an hour late, he heard “electronic devices” over the loudspeakers, and was attempting to restore some control in an otherwise crappy day. Any ideas?

* cleanshavidens hairy-skinnidae

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