I frequently ride Amtrak between Boston and New York City. In a period when the airline industry is increasingly characterized by delays, lost baggage, canceled flights, and the security-mandated need for passengers to arrive at the airport hours before departure, train travel seems like a no-brainer. Who wouldn't opt for more leg room, a cafe on demand, the convenience of arriving at the station just before departure, and the freedom to allow one's children to take a walk to the club car?
The only advantage, in my view, that planes have over trains is their blessed cellphone ban while in flight. Nothing is sweeter than not being cornered into listening to the private conversations of other travelers, especially now that so many people have what must be the "Ten Billion Free Minutes a Month!" plan. Talk has become very cheap indeed.
For many years, after boarding my train in Boston, I would slowly move down the aisle, searching for a seat I could live with for the duration of my journey. This entailed scanning the other passengers, doing spot profiles, and asking myself, "Hmm, if I sit next to this person, will she spend the next four hours on her cellphone talking about her pedicure?"
I found that elderly passengers were the safest bet, as they were more likely to be Luddites who eschewed gadgetry. But the use of cellphones has now reached saturation level, and everyone, it seems – from teens to seniors – is chatting away. And all of them want to sit next to me.
Several years back, I read a haiku in this newspaper in which the author described an inspired way to fend off cellphone yakkers. I decided to try his solution.
Once again, it was during an Amtrak transit to New York. The young man in the window seat had seemed a good candidate for silent companionship, because he was already sleeping when I boarded the train.
But as soon as we left the station, he came to life, opened up his phone, and began a conversation of the most intimate nature. I gave him five minutes of grace, and then began to read my newspaper – out loud – at a pitch and volume equal to his. It had the desired effect: He got up and went to another car. One small step for a man, one giant leap for civility.
The news is that it's no longer necessary for me to engage in such strategies. Here's why: At some point in recent history, Amtrak designated a so-called quiet car. I don't know what merciful, farsighted genius came up with this idea – perhaps it was the same person who wrote that haiku – but I want to shake his hand.
In an age when one can barely hear oneself think – with all the beeping, buzzing, ring tones, and other sonic bric-a-brac in the air – the idea of a snug harbor where silence reigns is nothing less than revolutionary.
But my poor son! When our train boards, I whisk him along the platform in a desperate search for the quiet car, which is not labeled (note to Amtrak: mark this car in big red letters). "Anton!" I sing out. "Shake a leg! Get a move on! We have to find the quiet car. The quiet car!"
Time being of the essence – because the competition for seats can be keen – we charge through the train with our luggage until we arrive at the oasis of calm, the refuge of an endangered species that reads newspapers, does crossword puzzles, gazes out the window in voiceless reverie, or dozes the hours away.
My son indulges me because I buy him off with snacks and promises of other largess at the end of the line. In the interim, he reads, naps, and does Sudoku to the best of his ability.
What's even more wondrous than the fact of the quiet car is that the Amtrak conductors actually enforce the principles of this compartment: no audio devices of any kind, no loud conversations, and yes, no cellphones. I recently put their vigilance to the test when the young man sitting behind me blithely took out his cellphone and began a discourse – con bravura – on the shoes he had just bought at Filene's.
I immediately signaled the conductor. "Sir," I said, jabbing a thumb over my shoulder, "please do your duty." He didn't hesitate, advising the malefactor to either turn off the phone or move to another car.
Witnessing this scene, my son turned to me and asked, "Do you know how they name bridges and tunnels after people?"
"Yes," I said with a nod.
"Well," he said, "maybe they'll name this train car after you."
Wouldn't that be nice.