By Tim Kreider in the New York Times:
EVER since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car. The Quiet Car, in case you don’t know, is usually the first car in Amtrak’s coach section, right behind business class. Loud talking is forbidden there — any conversations are to be conducted in whispers. Cellphones off; music and movies on headphones only. There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon. The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol. Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car’s rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.
Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.
“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”
“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”
“Yes,” said the woman behind them.
“See,” the man explained gently, “this is how it works. I’m the one person who says something. But for everyone like me, there’s a whole car full of people who feel the same way.”
In a 2006 interview David Foster Wallace said, “it seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet, ever, anymore.” Stores and restaurants have their ubiquitous Muzak or satellite radio; bars have anywhere between 1 and 17 TVs blaring Fox and soccer; ads and 30-second news cycles play on screens in cabs, elevators and restrooms. Even some libraries, whose professional shushers were once celebrated in cartoon and sitcom, now have music and special segregated areas designated for “quiet study,” which is what a library used to be.
People are louder, too. They complain at length and in detail about their divorces or gallbladders a foot away from you in restaurants. A dreaded Amtrak type is the passenger who commences prattling on her cellphone the instant she sits down and doesn’t hang up until she gets to her stop, unable to bear an undistracted instant in her own company. People practice rap lyrics on the bus or the subway, barking doggerel along with their iPods as though they were alone in the shower. 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.
In his recent treatise on this subject (its title regrettably unprintable here), the philosopher Aaron James posits that people with this personality type are so infuriating — even when the inconvenience they cause us is negligible — because they refuse to recognize the moral reality of those around them. (James’s thesis that this obliviousness correlates to a sense of special entitlement is corroborated by my own observation that the crowd on Amtrak, where airline-level fares act as a de facto class barrier, is generally louder and more inconsiderate than the supposed riffraff on the bus.) It’s a pathology that seems increasingly common, I suspect in part because people now spend so much time in the solipsist’s paradise of the Internet that they carry its illusion of invisible (and inaudible) omniscience back with them out into the real world.
THOSE of us who despise this tendency don’t have a voice, or a side, let alone anything like a lobby. There are anti-noise-pollution groups, but they can fight only limited skirmishes over local nuisances; the war is lost. It’s impossible to be heard when your whole position is quiet now that all public discourse has become a shouting match. Being an advocate of quiet in our society is as quixotic and ridiculous as being an advocate of beauty or human life or any other unmonetizable commodity.
And so the volume has incrementally risen, the imbecilic din encroaching on one place after another — mass transit, waiting rooms, theaters, museums, the library — until this last bastion of civility and calm, the Quiet Car, has become the battlefield where we quiet ones, our backs forced to the wall, finally hold our ground. The Quiet Car is the Thermopylae, the Masada, the Fort McHenry of quiet — which is why the regulars are so quick with prepared reproaches, more than ready to make a Whole Big Thing out of it, and why, when the outsiders invariably sit down and start in with their autonomic blather, they often find themselves surrounded by a shockingly hostile mob of professors, old ladies and four-eyes who look ready to take it outside.
Eventually I found myself on the wrong side of the fight. I was sitting in my seat, listening to music at a moderate volume on headphones and writing on my laptop, when the man across the aisle — the kind you’d peg as an archivist or musicologist — signaled to me.
“Pardon me, sir,” he said. “Maybe you’re not aware of it, but your typing is disturbing people around you. This is the Quiet Car, where we come to be free from people’s electronic bleeps and blatts.” He really said “bleeps and blatts.”
“I am a devotee of the Quiet Car,” I protested. And yes, I said “devotee.” We really talk like this in the Quiet Car; we’re readers. “I don’t talk on my cellphone or have loud conversations — ”
“I’m not talking about cellphone conversations,” he said, “I’m talking about your typing, which really is very loud and disruptive.”
I was at a loss. I learned to write on a typewriter, and apparently I still strike the keyboard of my laptop with obsolete force. “Well,” I said, trying to figure out which of us, if either, was the jerk here, “I don’t think I’m going to stop typing. I’m a writer; I sit in here so I can work.”
He was polite but implacable. “If you won’t stop, I’ll have to talk to the conductor,” he said.
Looking around, I saw that the Quiet Car wasn’t crowded; there were plenty of empty seats. “I’m not going to leave the Quiet Car,” I told him, “but since it’s bothering you, I will move to another seat.” He thanked me very courteously, as did the woman in front of me. “It really was quite loud,” she whispered.
When the train came to my stop I had to walk by his seat again on my way out. “Glad we could come to a peaceful coexistence,” I said as I passed. He raised a finger to stay me a moment. “There are no conflicts of interest,” he pronounced, “between rational men.” This sounded like a questionable proposition to me, but I appreciated the conciliatory gesture. The quote turns out to be from Ayn Rand. I told you we talked like this in the Quiet Car.
We’re a tribe, we quiet ones, we readers and thinkers and letter writers, we daydreamers and gazers out of windows. We are a civil people, courteous to excess, who disdain displays of anger as childish and embarrassing. But the Quiet Car is our territory, the last reservation to which we’ve been driven. And we can be pushed too far. Our message to the barbarians who would barge in on our haven with their chatter and blatting gadgets like so many bulldozers is: