The uninitiated might assume the quiet car is the railroad equivalent of noise-cancelling headphones. Preening finance bros. The quiet car. Because sometimes — once every two trips, say — the sanctity of this mobile oasis is violated. The oasis is blissful and peaceful once again. Drunk Phillies fans. The reason? I’m not sure I ever will. ¤
Over the last year, I’ve frequently found myself taking the train from New York (home to media and publishing) to Washington (home, these days, to corruption, incompetence, and my apartment). This brings me to my real obsession: quiet car justice. But there’s no soundproofing. The people are good. Without any technology to disrupt the system or bouncer to keep order, the quiet car is quiet only by agreement. 17, Comedy
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or donate here. No streamlining. In the United States, train travel means the inevitably of delay, the possibility of derailment, and seats that smell faintly but unmistakably of misspent time. The phone is hung up, the discussion moved to the cafe area. We hold our breath. I look forward to it. But I’ve never found out. But it was more than that. The talker goes silent. A wave of excitement mixed with dread runs through each of us, as though we’re 18th-century Londoners about to witness a public hanging. In that moment, a hush falls upon the quiet car. It always works. And then a self-appointed executioner rises. “Yeah, hi, excuse me. Here’s the thing. For a few brief hours after leaving New York City, the world is fair. In the quiet car, justice prevails. In other countries, European countries, I imagine train travel means chic surroundings and flirtatious glances at godlike Swedes. Someone (gasp, shudder, heaven forbid) who decides to take a call. And when the train pulls into Washington, I find it just a little bit easier to live. MARCH 29, 2018
This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. Yes, some of it was the returning silence, so rare in the outside world. Every eye rolls in the direction of the offender. Who will step forward? It’s a miracle of civilization, not design. This is, um, the quiet car?” The tone is a perfect blend of righteous condescension, a cross between the Ten Commandments and NPR. The quiet car is a place where norms are upheld.
David Litt is a former White House speechwriter and the author of the bestselling memoir Thanks, Obama. I’ve always wondered what would happen if someone refused to obey the sign, insisted that they would keep talking and by the way screw you for butting in. Every time. A few months after the election, I dispensed quiet car justice myself for the very first time. And yet I love it. Stepping toward the loudmouth — or, more likely, craning over the seat — they prepare to deliver the fatal blow. Where popular will is respected, and the whims of selfish egomaniacs are not. Nestling in my seat afterward, I felt as if my skin were aglow. The only thing setting it apart from the rest of the train is the sign politely reminding passengers that talking must be kept to a whisper.