(NOTE: I've been going through my writing files and discovered this essay from several years ago. Though it was never published, I quite enjoyed writing it. I've edited it for length, but left the obvious anachronisms.)
Friday around noon, I board the Brown line for a downtown visit with friends. The train car I enter is half full, with plenty of seats and no obviously disturbed riders. Then moments after sitting down, I hear the grating sound of some handheld device set at stun. There, half way down the aisle, a 40-ish fellow dressed in jeans and a blue cap sits enveloped in the noise, his legs bouncing up and down, arms flying as he plays imaginary drums, eyes tightly shut.
Moments later, another sound, a loud rhythmic tapping. Sitting at the other end of the car is a young, dark-haired woman playing the castanets. Her eyes are also tightly shut.
Now I’ve ridden public transportation in Chicago for over 30 years now. Even when I owned a car, I’d regularly take buses and trains to downtown restaurants, nearby bookstores, friends’ houses, and work. In the mid-80’s, I completed an entire masters degree on public transportation, reading Chaucer and Milton and writing ponderous academic papers on the long ride between my far north side apartment and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
So I’m a certified fan of pub trans, and cannot imagine why anyone would daily submit themselves to rush hour traffic, pay a king’s ransom to park, and foul the air for generations to come.
Still, I confess to a certain crankiness when riding Chicago’s trains and buses. Excuse me, I find myself saying to my fellow riders, but would you please pick up that garbage you just tossed on the floor. Or lower your voice while on your cell phone, describing in some detail your naked girlfriend in the shower. Or maybe wait to clip your nails when you get home.
But I fear I am at the losing end of a cultural tsunami: the blurring of the lines between private and public behavior. More and more people act on public transportation as if they were sitting alone in their darkened living rooms, in their pajamas, scratching, belching and farting, screaming at some screen, often with only the bewildered family dog as witness.
And so this latest incident with the drummer and the castanet player has inspired me. Personally I think it’s brilliant. Though some commuter trains now have a Quiet Car, I’d go several steps further, designating six specific cars, each reflecting the diverse needs of Chicago’s riding public:
The Music Car would accommodate all riders with headsets, CD players, real instruments, and anyone moved to spontaneously tap their feet or sing out loud. This car can also be used for overflow from The Loud Talkers Car and the Car for Teenagers.
The Restaurant Car would accommodate all riders who eat and drink while in transit—carryout Chinese, Wendy’s burgers, KFC, six-packs of Bud. These riders will be free to guzzle drinks, lick their fingers, belch loudly, and toss bones, wrappers and cans on the floor or just leave them on the seats. This car can also be used for overflow from the Car for Teenagers.
The Toilette Car would be reserved for those riders who haven’t finished their personal grooming before leaving home. People in this car will be free to brush their hair and floss their teeth, apply or remove make-up and nail polish, pick their pimples and noses, and tweeze things.
The Loud Talkers Car would accommodate people who sit across and down the aisle from their family, friends, and co-workers and carry on long conversations in loud voices sprinkled with obscenities and punctuated with high-pitched laughter. Also in this car, cell phone users, especially those who still don’t believe that the person on the other end can actually hear them. This car can accommodate the overflow from the Car for Teenagers.
The Car for Teenagers
The Heavenly People Car will be reserved exclusively for those riders who sit quietly in their seats and read, write in their journals, stare out the window, say the rosary, nap in place, and speak in normal voices to their seat mates. No overflow from any other car would be permitted.
Not a perfect system, of course. For starters, there’s the enforcement issue. What if a strolling troubadour winds up in the Toilette Car? Or one of the finger-lickin’ crowd wanders in with the musicians? Well, come to think of it, who’d notice?
So maybe in the end, all we really need is one designated car—the Heavenly People Car. It’ll come equipped with special sensors to instantly eject loud talkers; amateur bongo players; and, of course, teenagers.