Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A feast for the senses

Today, in the alleged quiet car, these two dudes behind me held forth, I mean held forth, almost the entire way from Penn Station to Princeton Junction.* Something about golf. Something about Chanukah cards. I don't know. The conductor told them twice that "this is the quiet car," but they only quieted down once they ran out of brutally dull topics to drone on about. It's one thing if you don't know - I once got on the quiet car on Amtrak without knowing I was in a quiet car or on Amtrak (I was shooting for normal-car NJ Transit) - but another if you know but find the very concept hilarious.

I finally got around to reading Tim Kreider's essay in praise of the Amtrak quiet car, but not before hearing it mocked (successfully) on the Slate Culture Gabfest. Kreider's nostalgia is a bit much, especially where he expresses regret that "ladies" no longer exist. And the ending... let me just provide an excerpt: "We’re a tribe, we quiet ones, we readers and thinkers and letter writers, we daydreamers and gazers out of windows." Well how wonderful.

Nobody in the quiet car is writing a letter. The quiet car, from what I can tell, on the less-glitzy-than-Amtrak NJ Transit, at least, is for the oh-so-intellectual pursuit of napping. It's not that no one ever reads or does work, but in the morning, certainly, eyes are shut. And a quiet car happens to be the one that lines up properly with the station exits I need on both ends of my commute, so I end up in it more often than not.

But I'm ambivalent about the quiet-car concept. I'm hardly the first to note this, but a loud space is often less distracting than a quiet one, the library more grating than the coffee shop. When you expect silence, faint noises are distracting. When you don't, you zone out whatever it is, the background noise if anything keeping you awake. I can do work just fine in a normal car, but end up desperate to shush the non-silent exceptions... only to remember that I am in fact the least-intimidating person to ever ride public transportation, and if the conductor can't make it happen, I'd best not bother.

What I would like, what I would love, is a fasting car. Not a fast car - they do all kind of have to move at the same speed - but one in which no one is eating. Why do we cater to only the one sense? Yes, I'm talking about the artificial-butter popcorn smell, which, if I'm ever held political prisoner, would cause me to give up whichever secrets in no time. Also anything "ranch." Also plenty of foods I wouldn't find problematic except in a penned-in environment (thinking of you, Mr. Hotdog). Odor in tight spaces is so much more offensive than sound.

I suppose for anyone to sign onto my request, I'd need to frame it as nostalgia for the days of yore, when people ate three square meals at the dinner table with their families, and weren't such cochons as to snack at every opportunity. But that's not my complaint. I don't want to snack-shame, just not to be right flush up against you as you're inhaling whatever it is. And yes, I occasionally eat on the train, steering clear of the stinky (do chocolate-chip cookies count?), but I'd sacrifice this with no regrets if a no-food car were an option.

*I'm almost certain people have hidden my updates on Facebook because of my commute-related grrs. Or if not, they might want to consider it.


PG said...

"Today, in the alleged quiet car, these two dudes behind me held forth, I mean held forth, almost the entire way from Penn Station to Princeton Junction."

In NY-area, always reminds me of

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I love that scene. Its only flaw is that the actual conversations are never even that interesting.