Hell Is Other People on the SEPTA QuietRide Car

I have a message for my fellow travelers in SEPTA’s QuietRide car: Please shut up.

Illustration by Hawk Krall

Illustration by Hawk Krall

“I wish you were going to Vegas,” says the girl in the bright orange tank top. There’s something both infuriating and admirable about her tone. The way her declarative statements bend upward in pitch, as if she’s asking a question, reminds me of Valley Girls in the ’80s, and Paris Hilton. But this hot mess clearly doesn’t care what anyone around her thinks. If she were on a reality TV show, I’d say good for you — be yourself, screw the haters. But we’re on a SEPTA train bound for the ’burbs sometime around 6 p.m., and just seconds ago, the conductor made an announcement that we’re sitting in what’s known as the QuietRide car. Even if you’re not a regional-rail regular, you can probably figure out what that’s supposed to mean. Orange Tank Top and her male companion — who, in clear violation of some hipster-slacker ethos, is rocking both a backpack and a messenger bag — drone on, oblivious to both the friendly reminder and to the fact that no one in the entire car is talking except for them.

Finally, a bearded fellow decides his headphones are no match for their blathering. He yanks out an ear bud and turns to them. “Excuse me,” he says, firmly but without menace. “This is the QuietRide car.”

Double-Bag Dude’s ruddy cheeks suggest he’s had a few microbrews. “I’m having a quiet conversation,” he replies.

“It’s not that quiet.”

“Well, I’m whispering.” He is not whispering.

Dude and Tank Top ramble on about her vacation and his empty checking account and whateverthehellelse I can still hear, try as I might to ignore them. You see, on weekday mornings and evenings, I settle down in the first car of a train that shuttles me between the suburbs and Center City. It is, by SEPTA’s own dictates, a sacred place where “conversations with other passengers should be short and conducted in a whisper” [my emphasis], and “cell phones cannot be used for making or taking calls, you ignorant asshat” [my profanity]. Like church or a Broadway play, the QuietRide car promises a brief respite from hearing strangers discuss domestic disputes, their nagging hemorrhoids, and Katie next door who better keep her rotten dog off my yard or else her husband might find out where she’s really going on “hot yoga nights.”

That promise is rarely kept. And I don’t know what’s crazier — that people can’t shut their mouths for an hour, at most. Or that I keep coming back to the QuietRide car, knowing it’s more like the Sit in Silent Rage While Idiots Watch YouTube Videos on Maximum Volume car.

THIS SOCIAL EXPERIMENT began in 2009, when SEPTA, after a two-month trial, announced that the QuietRide would become a permanent fixture on all weekday trains with three or more open cars. Some egghead who teaches environmental psychology was asked what impact this program could have on the commuting public. “Having the car available, even if people don’t always access it … is probably going to do a lot to reduce how stressed people feel,” he said.

That, my friends, we can conclude with certainty five years later, is horseshit. If you don’t partake of the QuietRide, its mere existence doesn’t bring you peace of mind. And if you do roll the dice and hope that maybe, just maybe, today will be the day you find your fortress of solitude in public transportation, you’ll lose. The QuietRide is like a casino where you’re the gambler and that Real Housewife of Tacony with fake nails and a pink zebra-striped cell-phone case is the house.

Another evening, in the seat in front of me, there’s a middle-aged woman with a Carnival Cruise lanyard around her neck, kibitzing with a 20-something guy in a suit. He thanks her for a job recommendation, and she gabs about something in Delaware. The woman has a voice like a whistle with a pitch that stings. I’ve finally had enough.

“Excuse me,” I say. “This is the quiet car.”

The guy gives me that look — a smile that’s really a shrug. Carnival Cruise Gal decides more talking is in order: “Oh, this is the QuietRide car? Are we in the first car? How do you even know it’s the first car?”

See that cabin straight ahead, the one where the choo-choo conductor sits to drive? That means we’re in the first car, lady, as do the signs that indicate we’re in the QuietRide. Later, a woman takes a call and puts it on speaker. (On speaker!) I imagine my skin turning green, my clothes tearing to shreds, and my big green Hulk hands crushing her phone.

There is no one type of QuietRide saboteur, as they are legion. AARP cardholders headed to the Flower Show. Cell-phone talkers who board mid-call, oblivious to which car they’re in. Finance types, doctors, interns in suits from Men’s Wearhouse trying to look important — all either don’t have time for rules or expect us to understand that rules don’t apply to them. Bluetooth Guy, who takes the same train every morning and every night and looks genuinely shocked when a conductor finally tells him, after weeks of “buy low, sell high” yapping, that he’s in the QuietRide car. The chap discussing dinner options with his significant other, at length, so that we all know he’s so over chicken and maybe sushi but whatever she wants is fine. The two stoners sharing a granola bar that sounds, by the way they’re raving, to have been handcrafted by Jose Garces or Guy Fieri or Jesus. That starter’s gonna run him $400. She’s caulking the bathroom this weekend. I’m losing my fucking mind.

The rest of us who ride the Stress Express fall into three categories. There are the Lemmings, who sit mute like monks, saying nothing to the loud and obnoxious; history will judge thee harshly one day. Only slightly better is the Jazz Hands contingent — folks who huff and sigh and roll eyes and shift in their seats, putting on a show that indicates they’re annoyed but not quite enough to actually say or do anything about it.

And then we have the Vigilantes — those among us prepared to take action and defend the sanctity of the QuietRide. One evening on my trip home, two bros sitting behind me are convo-vomiting from the time they board. Sounds like they’re friends who just happened to run into each other, guys for whom there are other open cars that will welcome their loud and douchey reunion. After a few stops, I turn and say, “Hey guys, it’s the quiet car.”

“Turn around, buddy,” says one of them. That’s a conversational middle finger, one that probably starts a brawl in a bar. But even in the sober light of day, if you “buddy” a man you don’t know, you’re asking for trouble. Instead of turning around, I stare — in silence, of course — until he looks back at me. He mutters something about me being a jerk. But their volume drops, and they eventually stop talking. Mission accomplished.

Or is it? The QuietRide car is meant to reduce stress. Instead, when I speak up, I get that same nervous adrenaline rush that makes my thighs go numb when I see a cop’s headlights in my rearview: Something is about to go down, and likely something bad. All of this in pursuit of a serene place to read the last Hunger Games book before the stinking movie comes out.

SEPTA shares the blame for the failures of the QuietRide. The small instructional signs don’t stand out enough, and they offer “tips” instead of rules. Want to recite poetry through a megaphone? There’s no threat of imprisonment or even a fine — only the worry that a conductor may ask you to pipe down, though it’s unlikely. Enforcing the silence is low on the SEPTA employee priority list. Some conductors don’t make a QuietRide announcement, which they’re only required to do within the city limits. (This makes zero sense for inbound trains, since plenty of chatty imbeciles also live in the suburbs.) Worse, I’ve seen people on phones and women with screaming kids walk past a conductor to board the QuietRide. Rarely are they directed to the chaos cars where they belong.

One conductor on my route, the Norristown line, is a champ, a QuietRide all-star. He’s a little high-strung, but he’s always smiling. Better yet, if he sees a phone to your face or hears chatter, he’s all over it like a dog on a pizza crust. He’s a superhero of silence. I may name a child after him someday.

THE FUNDAMENTAL problem with the QuietRide car is that we, the people, are required to police it, and let’s be honest — without enforced rules and consequences for breaking them, we’re all a bunch of animals. I’m not always a vigilante, because speaking up often leads to more blood-pressure spikes. Being the QuietRide sheriff can also be awkward. One morning, I hear a young guy in front of me talking intermittently. He’s wearing jeans, a red tee, and black Nikes with a green swoosh. Sounds like he’s on the phone, but I don’t see him holding one. I realize he’s reading a textbook and talking out loud, to himself. Asking him to pipe down would translate to, “Excuse me, son, please curb your efforts to better yourself. Isn’t there a phone you should be staring at? A video that demands an LOL? Someone to whom you should be giving a virtual poke?”

During another morning rush, a young family boards. No way these two parents can stifle three boys and a girl, all under the age of six. In seconds, the cacophony begins.

“Wheeeeeeee!” says one of the tykes.

“This is fun!”

The conductor tells the parents that this is the QuietRide car — as if that’s going to help matters now. The poor mom tries to shush her little towheaded children, who are more ecstatic than anyone who’s ever taken ­SEPTA anywhere, ever.

“Aw we gowing ower the watah?” says one impossibly cute child. I feel like a complete ass for even thinking about the “rules.” The QuietRide car is a failed social experiment. No one wins.

If the QuietRide is bringing people together somehow, it’s not that we’re bonding over the right to remain silent. It’s that we’re all searching for a place — like the shitter, or solitary confinement — where we can, for a few fleeting seconds, hear little more than our own thoughts. This isn’t a nanny-state infringement of liberty; we simply yearn to catch some shut-eye to the soothing hum of the tracks or read the damn paper or judge other people’s Facebook posts without interruption. My daily commute would almost certainly be less stressful if SEPTA would admit defeat and end the QuietRide program. Of course, I could just sit somewhere else, a strategy my doctor and most therapists would recommend. But when you’ve promised me Nirvana, I’m going to keep looking for it, even if we both know it doesn’t exist.

So on behalf of my fellow QuietRiders, if you’d like to talk on the train during weekday hours, please go right ahead. There are at least two other cars where you can chirp away like old ladies at bingo night, give instructions to your au pair on how she should care for your children, and outline, in detail, your 5K training regimen. I’ll be in the front, waiting for you to sit down next to me, confident that the only true quiet car I’ll ride in one day is a hearse.

Originally published as “The Right to Remain Silent” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.