Friday, September 30, 2016

The Quiet Car: A Commuter Train Drama

Imagine you are on the train, a commuter train.  It’s the end of a long, stressful day of meetings and crises with no break for lunch and you leave late and rush to the train station only to see your train pull away.  Then, waiting, waiting, waiting for the next train and when it finally comes you get on.  You pick the quiet car and find a seat on the upper level so you can sit alone.  You need the quiet to unwind from work before getting home to the franticness of home life, children, homework, a wife who exhausted from dealing with children.  The car fills up quickly. A large man carrying a case Miller Lite cans  says, “Excuse me,” as he squeezes past you, but in more of a “Get out of my way,” tone. He sets the case of beer down, then moves back past you abandoning the beer. By the time he returns a few minutes later, every seat is filled except the one behind you. As the automated message announcing the train number and the stops comes on, an older man, after looking around for an open seat, and clearly flustered that the only one he can find is up by you, sits down behind you.  He has wild, white, pointy hair.

You will be shushed!
The train pulls away from the station and at first the car stays quiet as the darkness of the station gives way to the fading twilight of the late winter evening. Everyone has their head down in a book, or a magazine, or their phones.  One guy even has a newspaper. (It’s you. You are the dinosaur reading the newspaper).

The large man with the case of beer is starting at his phone. You can see that because your seat faces him. Then his phone rings.  Loudly. A train car full of eyes looks up at him.  He answers. Loudly.

“Hey,” he says.  Loudly.

“I’m good,” he continues. Loudly. “I’m on the train. Yeah, yeah.”

The words echo throughout the silent car.  Most of the eyes that glanced up when the phone rang remain glued the man. A few riders mutter under their breath. You try to refocus on your newspaper, hoping to block out the talking. You hope he realizes he is on a quiet car, but you’ve never seen him before. He’s not a regular. Regulars know the rules of the quiet car.

“No, I’m gonna get in at like six-thirty. Miranda? No, man, she’s crazy.” He continues his conversation, unaware of the tension building in the car. The guy behind you, you can feel his teeth grinding. It’s hard to focus on the words as he fidgets behind you, muttering, “It’s the quiet car,” loud enough for you and the others near you to hear it.  Maybe he thinks you will play a game of telephone and the message will get passed on down to the large man at the other end of the car.  Finally, the man behind you gets up his courage.

“Hey, this is the quiet car!” he shouts, his face red

The entire car looks up at him, all except the large man on the phone. He keeps talking. The guy shouts at him again.

“Hey, buddy, it’s the quiet car!” This time he stands up and starts walking toward the large man.

“Hey, asshole!” he shouts.  “This is a quiet car. No talking on the phone.” He bumps you as he moves past you and you drop your newspaper.

The large man on the phone looks up.

“What?” he says calmly.

“Get off the phone, this is the quiet car,” the man shouts again.

The large man ignores him.

“Get off the phone,” he shouts again.

“Shut up, man,” the large man says.

“This is the goddam quiet car,” the old man shouts. You can see the back of his neck reddening. The hair on your arms stands up. Your body senses something is about to go down.

The old guy goes back to his seat behind you, still shouting. The large man says, “Hold on,” into his phone. The he looks at the old man, who is now right behind you. He’s looking through you, to get to him.

“Shut the fuck up!” he bellows.  He is louder than the old guy. “Or I’ll come over there and make you.”

You slump down in your seat. There is going to be a fight. On the train. On the quiet car. After remaining silent during the entire incident so far, the guy in front of you, a guy maybe a little bit younger than you who has been buried in his headphones speaks up.

“Hey, it is the quiet car, man,” he says. His voice is calm. It is the voice of reason, at least for a moment.  

“You want to go, too?” the large man shouts. “I can take you both.”

The voice of reason is shouted down by the large man.

“I’m getting the conductor,” the old man behind you says. He jumps up from his seat and hustles down the narrow stairs and slides open the door.

The guy in front of you, once the voice of reason, is now shouting at the large man to just be quiet. The large man is having none of it.  “Just stop, man. It’s the quiet car,” shouts the voice of reason. He points at the sign above the door leading out of the car.

Now the story turns ugly.

“Shut your white privileged ass up,” says the big guy.

“Shut your dumb black ass up,” says the old man behind you. They both stand up and step towards each other. You are in between them. You think you are going to get punched because that’s what happens when amateurs fight.  They miss and hit the poor bastard who was just trying to read his newspaper. You put your hands up, ready to block. You cover your eyes a bit, cringe and wait for the blow.

The door to the train car vestibule slides open and the conductor steps in. All eyes turn to him. He looks like a kid fresh out of college.

“Tell this asshole he’s on a quiet car,” the older man shouts. The voice of reason in front of you is still trying to explain to the large man that he is on a quiet car.  All three men are shouting at each other, every other word asshole, with the occasional motherfucker dropped in to spice it up.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,” the conductor shouts.  The men don’t stop.

“Hey, hey, hey. EVERYONE STOP!” he shouts as he moves down the aisle, his eyes fixed on the upper level.  “Knock it off.”

The men stop for a second.

“You,” the conductor shouts as he points to the man sitting in front you.  “You move down there.” He points to the car behind you.

“You,” the conductor says as he points to the large man. “This is the quiet car.  If you want to talk, move to a different car.”

The large man says, “I gotta go,” into his phone and clicks it off. The old man gets up, tramples down the narrow stairs and through the doorway to the other car. The young man in front of you slips his headphones back over his ears,

“People, this is the quiet car, not the asshole car.  If you want to be an asshole, please get off at the next station and wait for the next train. There are no assholes allowed on my train.”

There is a murmur in the train car as everyone settles. For the first time in a long time, the car is quiet.

The large man sits down.  The old guy behind you gets up and moves down the stairs and out to the next car.  The rest of the passengers return their eyes to their phones and books and magazines.  The hair on your arms lays down flat.

“Tickets please,” the conductor says. “This is the quiet car.”

You wish you could say that you learned something from this, but did anyone learn anything? At least it didn't go this far.

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