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Cautionary Tales from the Quiet Car

The Amtrak Quiet Car is the best invention since central heating. Washington to Boston’s a long haul, but you’re sitting in a laptop library with a cafe one car down, and the hours pass calmly, happily.

I’m not saying the lav on a train is a thing of beauty after six hours, and I’m not denying the jostle as passengers leave and arrive. I’m saying who would have thought transport by rail over many hours would evolve into a semi-trance with long water views and private screenings of the international news?

Yet precisely because of the peculiar utopianism of the place, its deliciously infantile and also somehow self-righteous shushing, the Quiet Car makes people bizarre. Here are two cautionary tales – of silence loved not wisely but too well – from UD‘s ride yesterday.

The one outstanding exception to the universal hush of the Quiet Car is of course the conductor. He gets to blast through barking small talk as he takes our tickets. Lady, always print the bar code. Where’s your bar code? Don’t just print the first page lady. Why don’t people know to print the second page? I need to see your bar code was the recurrent theme as our guy blasted through.

On one of his blasts, a woman a few seats in front of UD made the mistake of telling the conductor to shut up. This is the quiet car she told him. She told the conductor.

Are telling me or asking me? You think I don’t know this is the Quiet Car? You keep your mouth shut lady and mind your own business.

UD will admit to being shocked by the conductor’s aggression (his face flushed, his eyes flashed), but the Quiet Car seemed to bring out equal intensities of silence love and noise defense in these people, and the results were ugly.


Then there was, a little north of Connecticut, UD‘s own series of unfortunate events. She was sitting comfortably, one foot resting on her backpack, when she heard faint but unmistakeable Christmas music. Sound of any kind was bad enough in the Quiet Car; but Christmas music? Was Amtrak asinine enough to pipe carols into the Quiet Car??

Or was it one of her neighbors? She stood up and looked around for the source of the offense but though it felt nearby and weirdly insinuating she couldn’t locate it.

Finally she made a general announcement to the car. Would the person playing Christmas music please turn it off, she said.

Yes, said a disapproving voice. There’s music in this car.

But the music did not stop, and UD once again began beating up beastly Amtrak in her mind…

Until she remembered that Mr UD had, just before they left DC, bought a new little radio – a thin black number – and that UD had packed it in the backpack under her feet.

Frantically, guiltily, humiliatedly, she pulled up the backpack and extracted the radio which it seemed her feet had pressed against and turned on.

It was somehow like that scene in Pnin where Pnin irritatedly returns to the campus library a book he still wants to read. Someone has recalled it. (‘Mrs Fire, permit me to ask something or other. This card which I received yesterday – could you maybe tell me who is the other reader?’

‘Let me check.’

She checked. The other reader proved to be Timofey Pnin; Volume 18 had been requested by him the Friday before. It was also true that this Volume 18 was already charged to this Pnin, who had had it since Christmas and now stood with his hands upon it, like an ancestral picture of a magistrate.

‘It can’t be!’ cried Pnin. ‘I requested on Friday Volume 19, year 1947, not 18, year 1940.’

‘But look – you wrote Volume 18. Anyway, 19 is still being processed. Are you keeping this?’

’18, 19,’ muttered Pnin. ‘There is not great difference! I put the year correctly, that is important! Yes, I still need 18 – and send to me a more effishant card when 19 available.’)

Margaret Soltan, December 24, 2013 6:38AM
Posted in: snapshots from home

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2 Responses to “Cautionary Tales from the Quiet Car”

  1. adam Says:

    Aha! said Holmes… a clear case of foot on bag disease.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    adam: LOL.

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