The other day I was taking the train to New York. I sat next to a young guy in a Philadelphia 76ers hat. 

I asked him if he would mind if I plugged in my phone, which meant the wire had to run across his lap. He said, “No, of course not! That’s fine.”

I saw that he was looking over a catering menu, so I asked him, “Are you planning a big party?” 

He said, “Actually it’s my wedding.” 

“Your wedding? Exciting! When is it?” I asked. He said it was next month, at a place outside of Hartford, Connecticut, where his fiancée was from. “We’re having kind of a disagreement about the hors d’oeuvres,” he said. “Whether to have heavy or light.“ 

“Which side are you on?” I asked him. He said he was more for light since it was a full sit down dinner but his fiancée, well actually his fiancées mother, was insisting on heavy. “She’s half-Italian, half-Jewish,” he said. “She’s gotta make sure no one goes hungry.” We both laughed.

I asked him if the mother and daughter were having some friction on the wedding planning. He said that he and his fiancée had made a conscious decision to let her mother run the show. “Her mother is pretending we have a say. That’s why I’m looking — or anyway, pretending to look at this menu,” he said. 

He was so cheerful and unbothered. I told him that with an attitude like that, I had high hopes for his marriage, and he laughed. “Where did you guys meet each other?” I asked him.

The train scold

Before he could answer, a woman with a narrow face and short red hair sitting three seats ahead of us and on the other side of the aisle peered out and around from her seat and looked directly at me. “Shhhh,” she hissed. “This is the quiet car.” She glared and pointed at a small red and white sign above the door to the next car that said “Quiet Car.”

The social awkwardness of being shamed with someone else I barely knew — that was bad.

My face got hot. It was bad enough to be reprimanded myself, particularly by someone who was clearly younger than I was. But the social awkwardness of being shamed with someone else I barely knew — that was bad. 

Should he and I look at one another and discreetly raise our eyebrows? Should we simply settle back into our seats and stare straight ahead? Should we apologize to her, or to one another? Should we just roll our eyes and keep on talking? I really didn’t know. I whispered to my new young friend, “I didn’t realize this was the quiet car.” He whispered back, “What even is the quiet car? I never heard of it.”

The party car

When I was a kid, my father took the train home from work every day. I think it was the happiest hour of his day. Back then there was a real bar car, people, probably mostly men, playing cards and drinking in that magical limbo between the worlds of work and home. 

These were the “Mad Men” days, the days of my childhood.

It probably wasn’t so great for the wives and kids at home, but my mom was no doubt having a glass or two of sherry and a cigarette while she made dinner for the family. There was plenty wrong with that picture, I know, but these were the Mad Men days, the days of my childhood. 

The idea of my dad on a blue winter evening playing cards in the warm bar car with his train pals has remained forever a comforting image in my brain.

Talking to strangers

In my own train life, I’ve heard the most interesting and complex life stories, told in a variety of voices. I’ve talked to men, women, old, young, racial this, ethnic that, about kids, about food, about divorces, about exercise regimes. I’ve learned about people’s travels, about their mothers-in-laws, about their home countries, about their drug-addicted nieces. 

People in transit have everything to say.

It’s way easier to tell your story to someone you might never see again than when you’re trying to navigate the sticky censorious web of your actual life. People in transit have everything to say. Particularly on a train, there’s something about the soothing rumble that shakes words and worries loose. On a train, the in-between-ness of travel is present without the anxiety of airports, security checks, or actually flying. 

Whether or not the stories people tell are true doesn’t really matter. What people make up is just as revealing as the truths they tell. 

Their voices are authentic, whether it’s a truth or a lie. On the train, in motion, like in the warm boozy bar cars of the old days, you have the freedom to do and be whomever you want. No one minds if you bury your nose in a book or work on your computer with your earphones on. The message is clear and unthreatening — I don’t feel like talking to you right now. I would rather be in this other world, no disrespect intended. And no disrespect is ever felt.

In the quiet car, the air now bristles with judgment and righteous indignation.

But now because this red-haired woman has scolded us for talking about heavy or light hors d’oeuvres as if we are naughty second graders, the whole atmosphere of the journey has changed. It’s as if a thick cloud has rolled in over the sun. In the quiet car, the air now bristles with judgment and righteous indignation.

Here’s the thing. In a library everyone knows that you’re supposed to be quiet. People are reading, working, studying — they specifically come to the library to do those things. If that red haired woman had hissed, “Shhhhh” at me in a library, I would understand. My face would still get hot, but I’d know that she was within her rights to expect quiet.

A train, a plane, an airport bar — these seem among the few truly safe spaces we have left in this torn up world.

But on a train? Where we are all free and clear to be whomever we want? Honestly, it’s a shame that such a thing as the quiet car even exists on the train. It seems wrong, and against the natural grain of what human beings should be about. And yes, it’s true, no one has to sit in the quiet car. It was by accident that this young man and I had found ourselves there. He didn’t even know there was such a thing. I knew, but hadn’t paid attention to where I was sitting.

Even so — don’t people already have ample opportunity to reprimand and judge one another? A train, a plane, an airport bar — like my father’s commute back in the day, these sweet floating moments of disconnect seem among the few truly safe spaces we have left in this torn up world. And now here I am — getting scolded in the quiet car.

Too bad. 

Too bad for me. 

Too bad for all of us.

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