How the Quiet Car Explains the World

I'm sitting in the quiet car of an Amtrak train making my weekly voyage up top. There's a rule that prohibits loud talking and digital devices. Cell phone usage is also prohibited. There are signs at the top of the car labeled "Quiet Car" with the rules prominently displayed. "Quiet Car" is scrawled on the outside, also. The conductor, at the beginning of the trip, announces over the intercom, "If you can hear this you are in the quiet car..." and then explains the rules.


As I write this someone's digital device is going off. The woman apparently can't figure out how to shut it off. She does not want to repair to another car to figure this out. She wants to do it here in the quiet car. She is not alone. Somewhere around 75 percent of the time that I've ridden in the quiet car, somewhere has decided that there is a cell phone conversation they must have, or a song that they must play so that all can hear its melody blaring out the headphones. Two weeks ago, one group decided to grab some beers and make a party of it. 

These people are almost always dealt with by a conductor or other passengers. But I've never quite been able to figure out why they come to the Quiet Car. It's not a matter of not knowing the rules, so much as a matter of not caring. It's almost as if the offenders regard the regular cars as a public lavatory, and the Quiet Car as a private bathroom where they may repair to handle their shit.

I like a good bar. I like taking my wife to good bars and drinking with her. Every once in a while we'll be at a bar and someone (they are invariably white*) will stumble over drunkenly and decide that we should be engaged in conversation with them. These encounters range from the annoying (people deciding you need to hear their life story) to the borderline violent (someone telling my wife to "shut the fuck up" -- you can imagine how that went over) to the outright racist. (Dude pulls out a picture of his dog and then tells us, "My dog's a nigger." That actually went over better.) But what they all share in common is the inability to read the rules and know the ledge; the belief that we are their private stall.

It is not unlike what I've noticed here when commenters arrive and complain about the prohibition against threadjacking, the deleting, or moderation as a whole. The Internet is filled with comment spaces, most of them only barely regulated. But that is not enough. One must have the right to talk however one wants, here, specifically.

I think what we have here is a working definition of an asshole -- a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms. Assholes fill our various worlds. But the banhammer only works in one of them. 

*I am pretty sure this is because of how violence influences black communities. There's a whole choreography (especially among black men) around avoiding it. It's fairly easy to see and broadcast. If you've been acculturated to people being shot/stabbed/beat up over minor shit, you tend to be a little more careful in your interactions. You never know who you're talking to. And if you are black person of a certain age, you are intensely aware of that.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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