The Lies the Quiet Car Tells

Chris Christie’s run-in with Amtrak’s most contentious travel option is a reminder that silence, for better or for worse, can’t be bought.

Molly Riley / AP
The problem began, as so many problems will, on the Quiet Car. A little before 10 Eastern Time on Sunday morning, Chris Christie, following an appearance on Face the Nation in Washington, boarded a northbound Amtrak train just before it pulled away from Union Station. Christie, in his haste, boarded the Quiet Car. He did not realize that fact. He began to make a phone call. He was promptly shushed. A scene ensued.
It was thus that the governor of New Jersey, like so many Amtrak riders before him, found himself the victim of Quiet Car Justice.
Then, this being Amtrak and Christie being Christie, the incident was promptly tweeted, and then blogged about and opinion-pieced and mocked. In response to which, Christie’s spokeswoman issued the following statement:

On a very full train this morning, the Governor accidentally took a seat in Amtrak’s notorious quiet car. After breaking the cardinal rule of the quiet car, the Governor promptly left once he realized the serious nature of his mistake and enjoyed the rest of his time on the train from the cafe car. Sincere apologies to all the patrons of the quiet car that were offended.

The statement is dripping with sarcasm, and rightly so: The Quiet Car is notorious, for reasons that are at once extremely legitimate and extremely silly. The Quiet Car is less a travel cabin than a kind of rolling social experiment; its existence is wholly contingent on its temporary community’s adherence to fairly arbitrary social codes. (While some of its Amtrak-stipulated rules are clear—“phone calls are not allowed and all portable electronic devices must be muted or used with headphones (passengers using headphones must keep the volume low enough so that the audio cannot be heard by other passengers)”—others are open to interpretation: “Guests are asked to limit conversation and speak in subdued tones.”)
So while in theory, definitely, the Quiet Car is wonderful—a bit of silence in a loud world, a refuge of civility among the various indignities of travel, an embodiment of all that is wrapped up in the old and romantic idea of Riding the Rails—in practice, the Quiet Car can end up being a pretty terrible place. And for reasons that Governor Chris Christie made clear in his inadvertent brush with it.
For one thing, within most every Quiet Car will be seated, almost inevitably—call it Christie’s law—an individual who either does not realize or does not care about the assorted sanctities of the Quiet Car. A person who do not recognize that “Quiet” is capitalized in Amtrak’s parlance because quiet, here, is not so much a description as an ethical edict. A person who—in the moral cosmology of the Quiet Car, at any rate—is kind of a jerk.
As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates noted last year, “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.” (He added: “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.”)
And then, inevitably, there is the Quiet Car Vigilante, the person who takes it upon him or herself to right the wrong that has been done against the good people of the Quiet Car—and, indeed, against the spirit of the Quiet Car itself. (Spot a notable Quiet Car violator or silent patriot?” the Twitter account @IsQuietCarQuiet exhorts.DM us and let accountability ring. On silent.”) Often, the vigilante-ing will be louder than the offending conversation itself. Often, it will escalate. “Ever since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars,” the writer Tim Kreider noted in a widely shared New York Times essay in 2012, “the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car.”
Which is to say: The Quiet Car is a place of unattainable ideals. The stuff it symbolizes—silence, civilization (the aspirational logic of the Quiet Car does not recognize a discrepancy between the two)—will almost always be shattered by human inevitability. And that translates, too, to the other things the Quiet Car represents, or claims to: the pleasures of silence, and the notion that quietude itself has become a kind of luxury good, and the primacy we have, as a culture, placed on the search for calm in a chaotic world. The popularity of yoga, the ubiquity of noise-canceling headphones, the rise of the word “mindfulness,” the deeply, desperately held conviction that environmental calm can bring existential calm—all of these, in their way, are baggage stored within the neat receptacles of the Quiet Car.
But what Chris Christie’s dramatic (and appropriately loud) ejection from the Quiet Car reminds us of—indeed, what any Quiet Car Shamee will remind us of—is how unobtainable silence, literal or otherwise, actually is. We can get to Penn Station early, jockeying for space in the Quiet Car. We can pay extra for silent lounge areas in airports, put down $300 for a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. We can try to buy silence like any other commodity. But those efforts will be, at least in part, futile. Because there will always be a Chris Christie. There will always be someone who is either ignorant or dismissive of the niceties of quietude. While technology has allowed us to control many, many things—among them, in some senses, nature itself—there is one thing that will always be out of our control: other people.