The morning Metro commute consists of a bunch of unspoken rules, protocols that Shall Not Be Violated. For example, on ascending escalators, always stand to the right and walk to the left. You will be hazed if you stand on the left. When boarding a train, you must first look for a pair of seats that are empty, and sit in one of them; if there are none, only then shall you sit next to someone else. (But don’t look at them or speak to them.) You may place your briefcase on the empty seat next to you, but as the seats fill up, you should move it so someone may sit in that seat. Read your newspaper, but do NOT cross the plane into your seatmate’s zone. If you’re unlucky enough to board when all seats are full, then stake out your slice of real estate, grasp your personal handwidth of pole, and DON’T MOVE unless it gets really crowded, in which case you shall do so only grudgingly, adding a sigh or a roll of the eyes for effect.
But whatever you do, DON’T TALK OUT LOUD!
If you absolutely must talk, please limit your speaking to a brief exchange, and then do everyone a big favor and shush. Read your book and fiddle with your Blackberry and listen to your music and retreat into your own personal shell. Act as if you are the sole passenger on this eight-car train, even while surrounded by a shuffling sea of gainfully-employed humanity, commuters just trying to reach their offices so they can spend nine hours at their soul-crushing jobs, while feeling guilty for even feeling like that because in these times, you’re freakin’ lucky to even have a job, especially one with benefits, Bub.
Now, there is no commuter training program, no helpful brochure that explains the protocols. These rules are learned through trial and error, by astute observation. Most people catch on pretty quickly. Some are slower learners than others. Tourists break the rules all the time. Families chatter, their kids spinning around on the poles, discussing the bafflement of our Farecard machines and the mysteries of the one-day farecard, yet all excited to be riding the train into the city for a day of sightseeing in Our Nation’s Capital. We know they don’t understand our ways, and we forgive them. They’ll be driving back to Ohio / West Virginia / Pennsylvana tomorrow, anyway.
Regular commuters, however, are expected to learn and practice the Code. They are not supposed to break the Vow of Silence. And that is why this morning, two stops into my 35-minute ride, I was stunned when two women boarded the hushed train car, already engaged in loud, shrill chatter, and sat right behind me.
“I’M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THIS WHOLE ‘GET-TO-WORK-ON-TIME THING’ THEY’RE DOING,” the Shrill One explained to her companion, clearly a coworker, who audibly agreed. “UNLESS SOMEONE SAYS SOMETHING TO ME, I’LL JUST GET THERE WHEN I GET THERE!” My my, such a lot of bravado, to flout the Office Rules like that. Must work at a government agency, I hypothesized, and began to develop sincere sympathy for the HR manager in their office.
It became evident that the one woman was a bit of a know-it-all, though the other one had plenty to say, too. She seemed like the type that everyone tolerates, the one who tells stories that are too long, with too much detail. Or, maybe silence makes her uncomfortable and she felt obligated to fill it with nonstop chatter. Probably, she’s what we like to call an HME: High Maintenance Employee.
I whipped out my MP3 player and stuffed the buds in my ears. I jacked up the volume. It almost drowned them out, but not totally. And that was fine right up until the battery ran out of juice.
But they were still talking! They talked about health benefits, of 90% coinsurance and $10 copays and progressively worsening spinal cord injuries. They talked about driving in the city and getting lost and trying to merge on a ramp during rush-hour traffic. They spoke of rainy commutes and forgotten umbrellas and third-floor walk-up garden apartments.
They talked and talked and talked, practically without taking a breath, and they were the only ones talking in the entire train car.
“WOW, YOUR SURE HAVE GOT A LOT ON YOUR PLATE,” Shrilly said, “BUT YOU HAVE SUCH A POSITIVE ATTITUDE ABOUT IT ALL!”
That was enough for me. I got off the train one stop early and walked a couple of extra blocks, enjoying the hushed murmurs in the train station, the thwap-thwap of opening and closing fare gates, the whirrrrr of the escalator as I stood to the right, retreating back into my Commuter Coccoon that had been violated by the Loud Talkers.