“Oh dear god, what have we done?” I whispered as my husband pointed out the “Quiet Car” sign at the end of the aisle.
The Quiet Car, if you are not aware, is a feature offered by Amtrak to prove that they are the luxury rail option, not to be confused with sweaty, wifi-less, chewing-gum-covered New Jersey Transit.
Even on the weekend—we were traveling back from Philly to New York on a Sunday—a car is reserved in each train so that the most self-important Amtrak riders who aren’t willing to pay for Business Class can have a place to loudly tell other people to be quiet because this is the Quiet Car.
Sitting there with a baby is a horrible faux pas, and we would never have done it, I swear, but we’d just walked through the entire train until we finally found two seats together. We’d spent ten minutes shoving our enormous toddler car seat, the separate cart we use to drag it around, a duffel bag, and a backpack into the overhead storage, taken our screaming kid out of his carrier and settled—sweaty and exhausted—into our seats, when my husband spotted the sign.
“Fuuuuuck,” I said—quietly. And then, “I’m not moving. I don’t care.”
Luckily, the first person to get told off in the Quiet Car was a woman on her phone.
“You need to hang up. Quiet Car,” an older woman across the aisle told her brusquely. The woman on the phone got up, announcing loudly that she was leaving to find a “louder car.” Tensions were high.
“Excuse me,” I thought about saying to the older woman. “You’re rustling your Financial Times too loudly. Quiet Car.” I didn’t say it, though, because my husband hates when I say obnoxious things to strangers in public, and I love and respect him.
My dream that this afternoon would go down in family lore as the one-and-a-half hour block that my kid uncharacteristically decided to sit quietly and look out the window was dashed in about two minutes when he started screeching about nothing.
The woman and man in front of me sighed exasperatedly.
“Shhh,” I told him, despite the fact that his cognitive development hasn’t yet reached the stage where he can modify his behavior so Mommy and Daddy don’t have to have an altercation with strangers. I just didn’t want to be that parent who doesn’t do anything when their kid screeches.
He screeched more. More loud sighing and turning around from our neighbors. Is there anything more shaming than a half-turned-around head?
“Everyone in the Quiet Car is a huge asshole,” I texted my sister, exaggerating slightly. “Naturally,” she replied, and my phone beeped. It beeped! I must have taken it off silent at some point. Babies can be forgiven, but people who don’t put their phones on vibrate? Inexcusable.
“Maybe we should move,” my husband said.
“I’ll go look for an open seat,” I said. When he didn’t say, “That’s okay, sweetie, you’re tired. I’ll take the baby and you sit here with the silent grown-ups and read your book,” I took the kid and left.
As I walked back through full car after full car, seething with every bump and jostle—How dare they intimidate us into leaving our seats? My child needs a seat, for safety! And anyway, it’s not like they’re paying more to sit there. They haven’t earned anything!—I stumbled upon a couple with a crying baby, a little younger than mine. We locked eyes, a glance so full of understanding and compassion that I briefly experienced nirvana.
“How old?” I asked.
“Eight months,” they answered.
“Should we hang out?” I said wryly, and my new best friends and I laughed together.
Their annoying baby was crying, so we moved on, finally finding a seat that of course some a-hole had their bag on because people don’t care about other people anymore.
I could tell that people here didn’t want us around either—the heavy sighs, the rolling eyes, the grimacing through fake sleep—and I silently rehearsed the lines I’d give them if they complained.
“Where do you want me to go then?”
“What do you want from me? I’m not going to sit at home until my kid’s an adult.”
“I have just as much of a right to be here as you do.”
“How would you treat someone who had a disability?”
“The world won’t end because you didn’t have a peaceful ride through North Jersey.”
“You don’t like the noise?” I’d growl. “Go sit in the Quiet Car.”
Yeah, that’s what I would say. That’s what I’d say if anyone had the nerve to give me shit about bringing my kid on the train! That’d show them! That’d show all of them!
Actually, come to think of it, why hadn’t anyone said anything to us yet? Couldn’t they at least have the decency to give me an excuse to feel self-righteous?
How dare they.
After 45 minutes of bouncing and reading and shushing, it was time to return to the Quiet Car and thrust my 1-year-old unceremoniously into my husband’s arms. He took off, and suddenly, there I was. Alone, an empty seat beside me, in a gloriously noise-free environment. Nothing to do but read my book and—
Oh come on. Someone else had a newborn in the Quiet Car? Really?
The woman in front of me made livid hand gestures to the man beside her, who shrugged as if to say, “Even in the Quiet Car, there is a measure of uncertainty to life, my dear one.”
“Someone’s else’s kid is crying. Come back whenever,” I texted my husband.
“The magic of the Quiet Car is broken,” I told my son when they returned. “Go nuts.”
As we pulled into the station and people started collecting their bags, a strange thing happened. One by one, strangers started telling us what a “sweet” and “good” baby we had, and how sorry they were that we’d had to keep him quiet.
“Oh yeah? Then where the fuck were you back there?” My husband responded (later on, when we talked about what we should have said then).
“First they came for the Socialists…” I began to recite (in my head). And before you ask, yes, I do think the Amtrak Quiet Car is an appropriate time for a Nazi comparison.
The train stopped, and we got off, feeling triumphant, in a ragged sort of way.
We took the subway home from Penn Station because we thought it might be easier than installing and uninstalling the car seat in a cab and because we are morons who deserve what we get.
As I struggled to stay upright in a sea of our unbalanced crap, a man with headphones on gave my screaming child a dirty look.
You can’t touch me, I thought. There are no rules on the motherfucking subway.
At the next stop, two drunk women got on the train. “What are you listening to?” one of them asked him, removing his headphones to check. “Sorry about her,” the other one said, giggling and pulling her friend away.
And that, dear reader, is what makes New York City great. No matter where you go, there’s always someone more annoying than you.