Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Quiet Car

If you go to and from work in your own vehicle, you carry your own private bubble with you. True, you have to endure traffic and detours and tolls. But your personal space is your personal space. You can make it as cold or warm as you like. You can crank up the tunes, be they country or rap. You can talk on the phone as loud as you like. And if you're of a mind and you can stay awake, you can even ride in blessed silence.

It's not the same if you use mass transportation. There you inhabit a very public living room along with other like-minded souls. And while safety and ease of transport are indeed paramount, a seat that gets you from Point A to Point B is merely table stakes. The creature comforts that exist these days on buses, trains and ferries have become just as important. While the last bar car on the Metro North commuter line went bottoms up in May (it was reportedly the last pure bar car in the entire country), other attractions have been added to entice commuters off the roads. On some conveyances this might include power to keep you going, TV to keep you entertained, or Wi-Fi to keep you connected.  

But for all these individual accoutrements it's still common space. As such, noise is a major issue. People listening to music or watching videos are usually not a problem, as they use earbuds. No, the most offending squawks are those coming from live, in-the- flesh humans. Whether it's the local side of a phone call, or actual person to person (and maybe to person) conversation, they are there for all to hear.  

It makes no difference if the individuals in question use their inside voices or not. Since you are sitting less than an arm's length from them, every exclamation or explanation is effectively delivered in a stage whisper. And so we all get to enjoy the recap of last night's date, the stupid project your stupid boss has you on, the listing of things to pick up at the store, the debate with the insurance company as to why your out-of-network claim should be allowed, the post-soccer game pickup arrangements for your eight-year-old, or best of all, the clinical description of your dog's infected paw.  Thanks so much for sharing.

That's why perhaps the most important improvement they've instituted on Metro North isn't the speed restrictions, or the engineer-conductor buddy system on critical curves, or radio control for braking over 30 miles-per-hour, but the Quiet Car. After all, the first three can merely prevent a catastrophic wreck, but the last will prevent me from being convicted of murder. Well, probably not murder, but certainly manslaughter, assuming I can convince a jury of my peers it wasn't pre-meditated.

In the Quiet Car, things are just that: quiet. No phone calls, no conversations, no loud earphones. I can read, sleep, daydream, whatever, all without having to be distracted. And best of all there is a self-appointed police force, in the form of other passengers. On virtually every trip there seems to be at least one who Is not shy about enforcing the rule of law, usually with a gale force version of "Shhhhhhhhhhh!!!!"

Depending on the hour, this de facto state-of-affairs actually extends its borders to other cars as well. If you take a train in the morning, chances are that the vibe will be more library reading room than party car. While it is not officially verboten to talk, if looks could kill, offenders would be quickly slayed. And if not, there's always your own set of earbuds.  

Such was the case for me a recent 5:09AM train. Three middle-aged women got on at the stop subsequent stop to mine. And while they weren't talking that loudly, it was talking nonetheless. Try as I might, my brain wouldn't tune it out, while all I wanted to do was close my eyes and catch up on the sleep I was missing. I eventually succumbed to taking out my own earpieces. And since music would have been distracting, I fired up a noise generator, looking for an appropriate masking effect. Interestingly enough it wasn't a light rain or waves lapping on the shore that best obliterated their voices, but the sound of an airplane cabin at 30,000 feet. With apologies to dear Will, silence by any other drone can still be just as sweet.


Marc Wollin of Bedford just needs quiet sometimes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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