To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or donate here.
Over the last year, I’ve frequently found myself taking the train from New York (home to media and publishing) to Washington (home, these days, to corruption, incompetence, and my apartment). In other countries, European countries, I imagine train travel means chic surroundings and flirtatious glances at godlike Swedes. In the United States, train travel means the inevitably of delay, the possibility of derailment, and seats that smell faintly but unmistakably of misspent time.
And yet I love it. I look forward to it. The reason? The quiet car.
The uninitiated might assume the quiet car is the railroad equivalent of noise-cancelling headphones. But there’s no soundproofing. No streamlining. The only thing setting it apart from the rest of the train is the sign politely reminding passengers that talking must be kept to a whisper. Without any technology to disrupt the system or bouncer to keep order, the quiet car is quiet only by agreement. It’s a miracle of civilization, not design.
This brings me to my real obsession: quiet car justice. Because sometimes — once every two trips, say — the sanctity of this mobile oasis is violated. Preening finance bros. Drunk Phillies fans. Someone (gasp, shudder, heaven forbid) who decides to take a call.
In that moment, a hush falls upon the quiet car. Every eye rolls in the direction of the offender. A wave of excitement mixed with dread runs through each of us, as though we’re 18th-century Londoners about to witness a public hanging. We hold our breath. Who will step forward? And then a self-appointed executioner rises. Stepping toward the loudmouth — or, more likely, craning over the seat — they prepare to deliver the fatal blow.
“Yeah, hi, excuse me. This is, um, the quiet car?” The tone is a perfect blend of righteous condescension, a cross between the Ten Commandments and NPR.
Here’s the thing. It always works. Every time. The talker goes silent. The phone is hung up, the discussion moved to the cafe area. The oasis is blissful and peaceful once again. I’ve always wondered what would happen if someone refused to obey the sign, insisted that they would keep talking and by the way screw you for butting in. But I’ve never found out. I’m not sure I ever will.
A few months after the election, I dispensed quiet car justice myself for the very first time. Nestling in my seat afterward, I felt as if my skin were aglow. Yes, some of it was the returning silence, so rare in the outside world. But it was more than that. The quiet car is a place where norms are upheld. Where popular will is respected, and the whims of selfish egomaniacs are not. For a few brief hours after leaving New York City, the world is fair. The people are good. In the quiet car, justice prevails.
And when the train pulls into Washington, I find it just a little bit easier to live.
David Litt is a former White House speechwriter and the author of the bestselling memoir Thanks, Obama.