The silence of the everyones

One odd thing, a very very odd thing really, thinking about it, is how silent the commute into The Big City is.

Not silent-silent, of course; the train makes lots (and lots) of noise, the big commuter train and the subway trains. The loudspeakers also speak loudly about standing clear of the closing doors and all.

But the people…

There is an official Quiet Car on the big commuter train; the first car or the last one, generally, depending on phase of the moon or something. (On the even bigger Amtrak trains, the Quiet Car has signboards suspended from the ceiling, saying “this is the Quiet Car” and all; on the commuter train you’re just supposed to hear the announcement and know which car you are in.)

But really, they needn’t bother.

On every car, everyone is silent. There may be two or four people traveling together, who speak in low whispers. There may be someone talking quietly into a cellphone, but even if they aren’t talking about their recent surgery or divorce or whatever (which I can sort of understand being disturbed by), but just saying “yes” and “aha” and “that’s nice”, they can still be tapped on the shoulder and asked to “keep it down” (I have seen this happen, with my eyes!).

I suppose maybe everyone is either trying to sleep, or being considerate of people who are trying to sleep.

Or they are just being boring. :)

Who does dare to make sounds? It’s kind of an interesting list:

  • People will talk, a little, if there is a reason; they will ask each other to make sure this is the right train when the loudspeaker says something confusing; a nice lady will ask me if I am all right when I make the mistake of sitting down on the subway and therefore crack my head sharply on the overhead handrail when I stand up again, and therefore sit down again quite abruptly; someone will ask me if this train stops at Penn Station, and I will proudly know the answer and tell them it does. But that is all very brief.
  • The subway musicians make sounds of course. Good sounds! Both the licensed ones with their assigned spots and their nice-looking cases put out for tips, and maybe their CDs for sale, and the I-suspect-less-licensed ones who just set up at a random place in the long hallway between Times Square and Port Authority. (I always carry spare dollar bills in a cargo pocket for these.)
  • Some people asking for things are mostly silent also, just sitting with a cup and maybe a sign, hoping for coins (or dollars). They are pretty rare; I suspect they are silent because if they are too noticed they get moved along by Authorities. But sometimes they will talk softly, or slightly jiggle their cups.
  • More mobile people asking for things can break the quiet of the subway to give their stories and rattle their cups; those tend to get dollars, too, even if (like the quite able-bodied guy on the 8th Avenue Local yesterday evening) their stories don’t really sound all that convincing. But I am in the “better a dozen grifters scam a bit than a hungry person get nothing” camp, so there we are. (The other morning on the train platform there was a guy offering resumés and asking if anyone needed a Graphic Designer; unusual!)
  • In between are the occasional musicians on the subway itself; playing the guitar or the sax (both or which I’ve seen recently) or whatever else. Do they also need licenses, I wonder, or are they technically just subway riders who happen to be playing an instrument, or something else?
  • The people giving away (trying to give away) the dueling Free Newspapers (AM New York and something Metro something) are to variable degrees talkative and cheerful or forceful or loud.
  • There are always people shouting about their God; pretty much invariably that Jesus fellow. Sometimes they are reading aloud from their Bible, holding up signs with chapter and verse, and sometimes just expressing themselves, apparently ad lib, about sin and salvation and all.
  • And then there was this rather down-at-the-heel looking fellow with a full beard who was singing (in quite a respectable voice) John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” while walking down that same long underground tunnel yesterday. If I wouldn’t have been completely and insultingly off-key I would have joined in out loud (I did in my head, of course).

I’m told that in more Southern climes public transportation is much talkier, more raucous, full of conversation and argument and shouting. I don’t know if that’s true even on Monday mornings. :)

There was that one time, some holiday night or something maybe?, when I was on a train for some reason and there were some tipsy young women talking and laughing and singing, and there was a not quite as young (but also I suspect slightly inebriated) man who kept yelling at them to shut up, and that was exciting. I think they all eventually got more or less thrown off the train by the conductor(s), for being unwilling to calm down.

More interesting than the stifled stifling silence, anyway…

how the hell can a person
go on to work in the morning
to come home in the evening
and have nothing to say?

Make me an angel
that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster
of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing
that I can hold on to
To believe in this livin’
is just a hard way to go.

7 Comments to “The silence of the everyones”

  1. My $0.02 — I agree that “lifeless” is bad. BUT, “cellphone-less” is GOOD. Especially the Borg Drones that speak at loud volumes to (seemingly) themselves, until you notice the blue-LED implant in their ear. Any public situation that doesn’t include them is great, IMHO.


    • Yeah, being loud to no one visible else is annoying. But being conversationally-quiet to someone (at the other end of your phone, say), and avoiding intensely private subjects (a subjective judgement, I know!) really ought to be okay, I would think. As should talking to the person right next to you :) which is also extremely rare…


  2. A wonderful article. One of your best. It nicely describes much of the train experience in New York City these days. That said, some things worth noting.

    1 – The trains used to be noisier. The biggest change to that is the digital music player (especially iPods) that allow people to walk on the train or subway with their ears turned off to everyone else. Noticing this is getting harder, mostly because, starting with the iPod, earphones have become increasing subtle, but its worth noticing, and perhaps especially noticing that by far the largest users of digital music devices (often iPhones) are women, who in the past were the more likely people to talk (and still are, really, at least if they are with friends. It is easy to imagine that these devices play a valued role, for at least some people, of being an effective foil to random pick up lines.

    2 – Most people who take the train are by themselves, effectively in the company of strangers. They may be routine strangers such that, if you take the train enough you start to recognize people, but we mostly don’t engage. Indeed, most people bring along something to do (as I believe you do with your Macbook). That used to be mostly newspapers, magazines, books, work (contracts, papers, etc) and crafts (knitting). Now it is increasingly eReaders, tablets, smart phones, smart digital music players, gaming devices, video devices, etc, all of which tend to be quieter. There used to be (and I suppose still are) groups of people who, having met on the train, travel together playing cards or just talking, but taking the train is a choice (a sensible choice in my view) that gives you something people don’t get much of at the home or office; alone time (yes, I know, alone in a crowd is ironic). The library-like silence that often characterizes the trains reflects that choice.

    3 – I’m of two minds on this myself. Sometimes when I’m on the train I not only have something to do, but really need to do it. At times like those I really value the silence and view disruptions of that silence with a bit of hostility. I’ve been known to change cars to find quiet (and sometimes change trains; obviously easier to do on the subway, where it is more likely to be an issue, than it would be on the Hudson Line). Other times I would really prefer to engage others and become the noisemaker. I’ve had hundreds of interesting conversations with total strangers (never seen before and never seen again) on the subway and, to a lesser extent, Metro North, but its harder these days (earphones are a great excuse to not hear, even if you do). But you do have to have some sort of good excuse to engage a stranger, even on a train, and I’m sure that more than one person (male and female) has thought I was trying to pick them up rather than have a conversation.

    4 – So it may well be that it isn’t that people “have nothing to say” so much as they have “no one along that they want to say it to”, “no one they want to hear it from”, and perhaps most notably “something they want to do”, even if what they want to do is reflect quietly on whatever it is they want to reflect on. It is probably the last of these that causes people to “enforce” the norm.

    None of which subtracts from your observations.


    • All good replies, Davis, thanks! Definitely, everyone has either a cellphone or a tablet, and at least half the people have something in or over their ears as well (I listen to my iPad’s music on my earbuds on the commune occasionally, but usually I like to hear where I am). Certainly for people who really need to focus, there is the Quiet Car. Or, in fact, all of the other cars as well. :)

      Ah, the Macbook! I could tell that story, too: it stopped working quite decidedly when I tried to upgrade it to Mavericks (“Mavericks”), to the point where it wouldn’t even net-boot, and when I picked out a replacement I decided to get a Chromebook Pixel because I’d never had one of those and so woot. So now my work laptop is running Chrome OS, which is interesting. And very Googlish! :)


    • Oh, and yeah on the people thinking you are trying to pick them up. :) I am hoping that once I am a little greyer and more wizened I may go from “creepy guy in the subway trying to chat me up” to “amusing grandfatherly type making conversation”; we’ll see!

      When looking around at the people in the subway seeing if anyone was interested in eye contact, I actually got a reply tonight; a man about my age, slightly in need of a shave. We made eye contact and sort of smiled at each other shyly, a couple of times. And I am somewhat ashamed to admit that near the top of my thoughts was “uh-oh, he thinks I am proposing a sexual tryst, and will be sad now that I do not follow him off to an obscure men’s room or something”. Which is of course not impossible :) but I would rather that my main thought had been “how very nice, to see and be seen for a change”. That thought was up there, but not in sole possession…


  3. I do a round trip to Brooklyn on the 2 line every Thursday this semester. Today, as I did the commute I couldn’t help but reflect on your article. There are some useful things to add, I think.

    1 – The subways tend to be much more crowded than they were ten years ago. The biggest reasons for this are service cutbacks that occurred following the 2008/2009 market crash, in which the MTA lost a huge amount of its reserves, largely as a result of failed derivative contracts. Those service cutbacks don’t directly affect noise levels, but they have indirect effects.

    2 – The crowding makes it harder for the car to car musicians, sellers, and beggars to do their thing. There frequently just isn’t any room for them to do their act and wander through the car collecting money anymore. That helps to make the trains quieter.

    3 – The crowding also puts people in very close proximity, violating their sense of personal space. People work pretty hard, under these conditions, not to look at others, never mind speak to them, unless they are a part of a group, and the crowding often makes it hard even for groups to stay close enough together to talk. This isn’t a problem on every train or every line, but it certainly holds for the morning and evening rush hours.

    4 – The crowding also impacts the ability to get seats. I probably stand all the way from 72nd St. in Manhattan to Flatbush Avenue on one train out of five. Better exercise, I suppose, but also somewhat different conditions for talking to those around you.

    5 – I wasn’t really trying to do so, but I wound up initiating three different conversations on the train today.

    6 – For the first I was standing and the people I interacted with were sitting. That conversation was relatively short, amounting to not much more than one person offering me their seat, my declining the offer, and a short conversation about the trekking poles I was carrying. Once it was established that I only use them to intensify my exercise that conversation quickly fizzled. They got off at 42nd Street, however, which opened up the seat (which I promptly took).

    7 – A young women took the seat next to mine. I needed to send an e-mail and there is intermittent AT&T cellular service between 42nd Street and 14th Street (continuous from 34th to 14th). Once I sent the e-mail I switched to Sudoku, which the young women noticed. We wound up having a pleasant conversation from Chambers Street to Nevins Street, where we both got off the 3 train and switched to a 5 (express much of the way from there to Flatbush Avenue). That train was as crowded as our 2 and we wound up on different cars, which ends her story.

    8 – I really more or less had to push in to get on this train, which drew a sardine can comment that led to a short conversation with a middle aged woman.

    That made three conversations, one of them relatively meaningful and two of which included a discussion of your blog post. Notably, the young woman shot down my pick up lines thesis (at least for her). She said she doesn’t get many of those. I suggested she could count our conversation as one (and it would have been fun, had I the time, to buy her a drink).

    I should note, as a counter to the above, my trip home, which was on a late train that didn’t really get crowded until 14th Street in Manhattan. Up until there there had been empty seats. There was virtually no conversation at all except among a group that got on at 34th Street and stayed standing all the way to 72nd (and probably beyond. There was, on the other hand, a psycho at Flatbush Avenue who kept yelling at a woman you kept trying to find a car he wouldn’t follow her into. One of those rare moments when you wish there had been a police presence and there was not.

    Don’t know if that helps or is even interesting, but it certainly happened.


    • All fun stories! :) Certainly the subways are crowded; I took the L and the 5 this evening just for a change of pace and the 5 from Union Square to Grand Central was extremely sardine-like (to the extent that you didn’t really need to hold onto anything if you were standing, as there wasn’t room to fall). In the midst of it all there were two people (traveling together) talking nonstop, and everyone else just being sardines…



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