article

12.05.08

The Nazi of the Quiet Car

Adventures with (rrrrring!) cell phones on the Amtrak, and the day I told the FBI director to shut up.

Adventures with ( rrrrring!) cell phones on the Amtrak, and the day I told the FBI director to shut up.

I live on a train. I know—what a sad thing to admit. I am the New Age Willy Loman. But there it is.

It’s a nice train, I will say. It’s called the Acela, a name meant to denote swiftness and “costs more.” It plies between Washington and Boston. My portion of the silver rails lies between Washington and New York.

I inhabit the car designated “The Quiet Car.” In its wisdom, good old Amtrak finally decided, some years after the advent of the cellular age, to designate one car out of six for passengers who, oddly, prefer not to be bystanders to conversations in which they play no part. How my heart used to sink, in the early days, when the passenger next to me would take from his briefcase a battery pack the size of a cinder-block, attach it to his prototype cell phone, and bark, “CHARLEY, CAN YOU HEAR ME? NOW CAN YOU HEAR ME? GREAT. OKAY—LET’S RUN THE NUMS.

Perhaps instead of waterboarding our “high value detainees” we might just simply subject them to other people’s cell phone conversations. I’d tell which cave Osama is in within ten minutes.

Perhaps instead of waterboarding our “high value detainees” we might just simply subject them to other people’s cell phone conversations. I’d tell which cave Osama is in within ten minutes.

The Quiet Car does not hide its light under a bushel. Prominent and explicit signs hang from the ceiling at five-foot intervals. They declare, unequivocally, that NO CELL PHONES ARE PERMITTED and that conversation must be kept to a minimum and in hushed tones. In addition to this ostentatious signage, the conductor announces over the p.a. system, often in a stentorian, Pavarotti-like voice, “IF YOU CAN HEAR THIS ANNOUNCEMENT, YOU ARE SEATED IN THE QUIET CAR. NO CELL PHONES ARE PERMITTED IN THE QUIET CAR AND ALL CONVERSATIONS MUST BE CONDUCTED [pun intended, I wonder?] IN A LIBRARY-LIKE ATMOSPHERE.” Often they add that there are five other cars where one can sit and exhibit St. Vitus Dance symptoms, do primal scream therapy, whatever’s your pleasure. You just can’t do it in this car.

I reflect that not once, in all these years, have I ever seen Vice President-elect Biden on the Quiet Car. As senator from Delaware, he faithfully commuted on this train every day to and from Wilmington. I just Googled “Biden” and “quiet car.” The first match is a newspaper report from September: “At 1:57, Biden took a seat on the first passenger car—not a quiet car...” QED.

At any rate, all perfectly straightforward, you might think. But no. No, no. Years of riding the Quiet Car, on which I have written perhaps a half dozen novels, many articles, and now my blog—my blog!—have turned me into something I never thought I would become: a Nazi. For it seems to fall to me to be the enforcer of quietude. I know—sad, pathetic, even. My life used to be more exciting than this. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now I am become Shush, the Destroyer of Conversations.

Invariably, just as one is settling into a cone of silence, there comes, from two seats away, a 80-decibel cell phone ring tone, something dulcet, perhaps, like “The Ride of the Valkyries”; or cute, the sound of a Paris police car; or au courant, “Te Extrano” by Xtreme, say; or simply generically grating, like the blast of oomp oomp oomp you hear at 3 a.m. while walking past the opened door of a disco in the meatpacking district.

You brace, hoping that the owner of the cell has simply neglected to put it on vibrate and will now press IGNORE. But no. No, no.

“Fred! Hey. Yeah, the meeting went okay. But look, we gotta get Bill and Chuck in the loop or it’s gonna be a gang bang…What? CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

As my late mother used to say, “Which words in the sentence, ‘No cell phones are permitted’ did you not understand?”

And so the Nazi, his cone of silence shattered, goes to work.

“Sir?”

Look of annoyance. “Yeah?”

Pointing to the sign. “It’s the Quiet Car?”

Aggrieved look. “Uh huh?” (Translation: So?)

“Fred, there’s some asshole here telling me I can’t use the phone.

I’ll call you back.”

Leaving the Nazi of the Quiet Car to return to his seat, face flushing at having been publicly called an “asshole” in front of dozens of people, to attempt to recreate the cone of silence. Not ideal circumstances while composing fictional arpeggios.

On one occasion, the silencee, who resembled one of Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe, declared to his conversational partner before furiously ringing off, “There’s this real asshole on the train,” adding in a knowing, wry tone, “there’s always one.”

Two weeks ago, when I suggested with some asperity to a young gentleman sitting across the aisle, somewhere during his fourth conversation about nothing in particular, that really, he might go use another car, he replied, “You want to step outside? I’ll beat the f------ s--- out of you.” And returned to his conversation.

Once, the director of the FBI installed himself in the seat in front of me, in the company of three or four other manly men, bulgy about the armpits. He proceeded to converse with them, in manly tones, in a fashion that could not be described as hushed or library-like.

I exchanged “Oy”-type glances with a number of my fellow suffering passengers, but they merely shrugged in acknowledgment of our being outgunned. Normally, as a journalist, I would be quite interested in overhearing inside-G-man chit-chat, but it was of the “So what’s Jack up to these days?” variety. A lot of golf, apparently. Finally, I screwed up my courage, leaned forward and gently tapped the nation’s top cop on the shoulder.

“Mr. Freeh,” I whispered. “You are a great American, and I am your greatest fan. But, sir, this is”—I pointed—“the quiet car.”

His retinue eyed me unpleasantly. I braced for a cry of “Freeze!” and a fusillade of 9 millimeter Glock-fire. The director looked up at the sign. He seemed momentarily confused. It had probably been a while since someone had told him to shut up.

“Oh,” he shrugged. And then, simply and without fuss, moved, along with his meaty, scowling entourage, to one of the Unquiet Cars.

How I savored my little triumph. If my obituary merits a second paragraph, I should like it to say, “Shushed director of the FBI.” Yes, this is how I should like to be remembered.

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Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.