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The Quiet Car


I commute to my federal job nearly 200 miles one way, once a week for now soon to be twice each week, so I've taken to riding Amtrak and sitting in the quiet car. The quiet car is supposed to be just that - quiet. It is described as having a library atmosphere, where there is no or low taking, less drama, a quiet ride where you can be undisturbed, read, write, enjoy the outdoor views. It is the perfect spot for traveling introverts. It is sometimes hard to believe that Joe Biden, the current U.S. President used to ride the train back and forth from his hometown in Delaware to Washington, DC when he was in the Senate. The concept of the quiet car is an amazingly civilized idea that surprisingly still works most of the time. For me riding in the quiet car is a self-care option, an almost therapeutic experience, silently pushing back on all that assaults my personal space - when it works.

There is always someone who believes that their voice is just soft enough to break the social contract of the quiet car and will try to hold a full on phone conversation. They think that their voice, sometimes just above a whisper, is onion paper thin enough not to be noticed - or that the temporary sound of their full voice, breaking the silence, will be ignored, is not annoying, and that they will be forgiven. Oh no, veteran quiet car patrons can be quite sanctimonious. They will give you the stink eye, shush and shame you, report you to the conductor, and will sometimes even call a person out - ironically also breaking the silence. People generally choose to ride in the quiet car to enjoy the sound of nothingness, for peace, space away from sensory invasion - the noises that other people make talking and laughing on cell phone calls, the sounds of chit chatty gossip, the noises of video games and those annoying ads that play between rounds, high strung children and crying babies.

I ride the Northeast Regional train, usually from Richmond Staples Mill to Washington, DC Union Station, the second leg of my commute. One evening after work I boarded the train at Union Station headed back to Richmond. There were already a good number of people on this train because it originates in Boston and travels down the east coast. The quiet car is usually just in front of Business Class seating, which is the last car on the train so it is a little bit of a deliberate hike to reach the quiet car. The conductor standing just outside at boarding time specifically announces that you are about to board the quiet car. I climbed up, found a great seat that had a two window view, and I settled in with no one sharing my seating space. I took my backpack off, took my jean jacket off, sat down, caught my breath and connected my Bluetooth headphones and began to search my phone for a good podcast episode or for music for the two plus hour ride. I checked my watch to see how close we are to departure and sure enough the first announcement for departure is made. The boom of the stairs lifting and doors closing could be heard and the conductor began walking thru the train making his general announcement. "This is the quiet car. The quiet car is a library-like environment - no talking on cell phones. If you need to take a call, move to another car to hold your conversation. All music, video games, and any other electronic devices that makes noise will require headphones when you use them." Just then, in walks a woman, popping gum and talking loudly on her cell phone about feeling disrespected on her job. The train began to slowly take off. Anytime now I expected her to tell the person on the line that she is on the train now and she had to end the call. No, that didn't happen. She continued talking. We had not even reached the daylight of outside, beyond the darkness of the covered Union Station, and people were already getting annoyed, looking at each other across aisles with eyes wide, eyes bucked in disbelief.

Demonstrating no self-awareness, or the presence of others while the conductor was making his announcements the woman continued to hold her phone conversation. The conductor stepped right next to her seat and repeated, "This is the quiet car. You will have to go to another car if you want to have a phone conversation," to which she loudly and foolishly responded, "Why do I have to be quiet now. We haven't even pulled off good yet". Sitting in what feels like my private cubby, because no one is sitting next to me, my eyebrows automatically rise and furl and my eyes roll slowly from side to side as if that will help me understand what just happened. Should I be amazed by the sheer level of ignorance, thoughtlessness, and selfishness of people these days?

Another thing about the quiet car is that it can sometimes be an olfactory nightmare - just a smelly trap. The level of unwanted smells probably depends on what time of day you are traveling. The early morning train is usually relatively clean - no random drink cups and food wrappers left behind and stuffed in the cord mesh magazine holders below your seat tray. The toilets are relatively clean and haven't been used as much. The trash bins at this time of day are usually not stuffed with food scraps from the café car reeking of vinegar-based condiments. Trains traveling at later times during the day can be a crap shoot. I have even experienced sitting down and finding a pair of women's panties stuffed in the magazine rack.

Stepping onto a train that originates nearly 400 miles away, picking up people across three states before it reaches you, imagine the wall of funk that you could sometimes be met with - especially during summer months. When this happens, in an instant, I begin to think about how many people boarded this train without bathing or even freshening their hot spots, how many didn't bother to brush their teeth or at the least swish a capful of mouthwash. How many failed to put on deodorant, are wearing dirty or soiled clothes, clothes that have absorbed the smells of fried or cooked food from their homes, clothes and hair infused with cigarette or marijuana smoke, and then have all of these smells masked with scents from Chanel No. 5, knock off designer perfumes, and body sprays from Bath and Body Works and CVS. Ugh… makes me queasy just remembering. To ride the quiet car you are required to ride for long distances with your mouth closed. When someone does open their mouth to yawn, sigh, snore, or just breathe the bad breath of a hushed mouth can be enough to singe even the coarsest of nostril hair. So here you come, the newcomer getting on board. This crowd has been riding for a while and apparently have gotten used to their collective funk. All you can think to do is take shallow breaths, using face muscles to push up your upper lip to form a fake shield over your nostrils or breathe holding your hand or the top of your shirt over your nose, as if that will really create a filter for the heavy smelly air.

Train travel is very good, especially compared to the kind of commute that I would have by car otherwise. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, travel by Amtrak is 46% more energy efficient than traveling by car. As a public health professional and a perpetual student of climate change and its impact on our health, I'll take it. I will also continue to take the quiet car despite the occasional drawbacks of the self-important loudmouth on the phone and the sometimes stench of the human condition, especially since I know that silence offers opportunities for self-reflection and daydreaming, which activates multiple parts of the brain. Silence and quiet gives us time to turn down the inner noise and increase awareness of what matters most, according to the Cleveland Clinic. I embrace the silence and peace of mind that the quiet car allows. According to Psych Central, some of the hidden mental health benefits of quietness include the unlocking of our creativity, allowing innovative ideas to flourish. Immersing ourselves in silence, we cultivate self-awareness and foster personal growth. And for me best of all, moments of silence can also benefit our physical health. According to the American Heart Association taking some time out to practice meditation and mindfulness can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and lower the overall risk for heart disease. I'll take some of that too. For the time being and into the future you will likely find me riding the quiet car once or twice each week between Richmond and Washington, DC. I guess I will soon join the smug side eyers as we protect our planet, protect our peace and our heart health. Shhh!

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