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.


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.

22 Responses

  1. We need flyers of unwritten rules……..EVERYONE should abide by that Metro/Subway (same rules apply in NYC) unspoken law. As should pedestrians hustle across the road when a driver allows them to cross, not meander with the knowledge that I, um I mean a driver, won’t hit the gas pedal and aim for their slow paced butts! Oh, and how about the driver that speeds up to cut in front, only to slow down??????? Deep breath……so what we need is a pamphlet of human etiquette, and when someone offends, no conversation is needed, hand them the leaflet and circle the number that coincides with the offense, and they can read why they are dumb without taking up any more of my time. Just an off the cuff suggestion. I haven’t really given it much thought though….

  2. I can totally picture you doing that, Randi. With a red Sharpie, medium tip. I can see it as a tri-fold, four-color glossy brochure.

  3. Pity you were shanghied off the train by inconsiderate people. I used to get so weirded taking the city bus to school. You had to put up with people singing loudly, and people talking to themselves, people stinking, people brushing up against your ass….at least you enjoyed the xtra walk.I feel like country mouse/city mouse when I read your blog. lol.

  4. Here you have to stand on the left and walk on the right.

    Or, if you’re an ignorant tosser, you and your five mates just stand all over the place and block everybody. You need to have four other ignorant tossers for this to work.

  5. On the Myers Briggs, they must have been pushing the limits of the scale for “e-extrovert.” As an INFP I have sympathy for them, but am absolutely drained and baffled by all that loud talk even if I’ m just listening to it. Of course as you know, the talking only jacks them up and energizes them more.

    I wonder which part of the Myers briggs takes into consideration the DA factor? You know, dumb ass. Cuz I know plenty of extroverts and they still abide by the unwritten metro code.

  6. Sweetie – this “Country Mouse” has adapted to the city and likes it most of the time. There are equally annoying things about living in the country, too, from what I remember. Glad to share it with you here so you don’t have to suffer its indignities as I do several days a week.

    Gully – Please send four mates. Thanks. And also, what’s a “tosser”?

    CBW – they were definitely DA’s. I think I’m mostly an extrovert but where there are rules, stated or not, I’m all about following them. Had I been able to shoot these ladies my patented one eyebrow raised glare, I most certainly would have.

    Which reminds me, I forgot to charge my ipod and I’m heading downtown again today. Crap. CRAP.

  7. And the elevator is another story. One comedian suggested that to really make people crazy, try going into the elevator and don’t turn around. Anyone wanna try it and send us a report?

  8. Obey rules? Really? I have two words for you “Green Turtle”.

  9. Rosie and I make the daily commute together by car (don’t quite trust her to keep it all together on the train and bus, though she’s probably getting to the age where she’d be OK). Some days when the traffic is bad I really miss the opportunity to take the bus and metro and read or listen to music. But then I have an experience like the one you just had and it reminds me there’s a dark side too…

    Actually a couple of weeks ago when I took the bus home unexpectedly there was one of Those People riding. Everyone else was quiet and this clueless lady whipped out her cell phone and had a normal-to-high-volume conversation for about 10 minutes, punctuated with fits of laughter. Apparently she and her friend on the other end were making dinner plans. I tried shooting her a look or two and pointedly took out my headphones (I’d been reveling in the silence before she started jabbering) but she was oblivious. Why don’t people just follow the Code?

    (I do like Randi’s idea of brochures, actually… maybe I’ll make up a small batch and hand them out to clueless commuters.)

  10. Nancy, as always, there are pros and cons to either way. On my driving days, I like listening to NPR. On my Metro days, I look forward to reading. I just can’t read with loud talkers around, or with loud music in my ears.

    If you do make a brochure, send the link around. Let’s start a movement, girls!

  11. Oh. Oh. Private conversations in a public place — last month there was this woman in the airport at the gate, making a call. I could now tell you which way “her” ” Kimberli” is spelled, her last name and how to spell it, the last four digits on her charge , the expiration date, and the security # on the back. I really wanted to go over to her and tell her all of that, but didn’t because, you know . . . . ..

  12. While Randi has the marker, could we call up the apostrophe/comma police and do some writing in and whiting out? Hmmm?

  13. I had the misfortune of being released from work early yesterday and had a crazy man wander the car glaring at people and yelling “Obama! Obama!”
    I got off at the next stop and reboarded the next Metro by. It was delightful- my sympathies to you.

  14. Okay, I might step on some toes here, but really people. Seriously. If the chatter bothered so much, why not just join in the conversation? Clearly they didn’t care who was listening. And if you are traveling with a companion, are you not allowed to speak to each other, for fear of the wrath of disgruntled commuters?

    I will agree that carrying on a loud conversation while on your cell phone is like talking in the library, but while it might not be a conversation you care about, why should travel companions have to stare at each other in stony silence?

  15. I know what a tosser is!!!!!!! Somewhat similar to a wanker I believe:) I think the lovely part of this “conversation” is exploring all of the ideas that I would NEVER have the chutzpah to do myself. Though, I have joined in on conversations and have had WONDERFUL line experiences. Some of the best 3 hours of chat I’ve had in ages…..waiting in line to vote. I butted right on into a conversation, and it was a blast! :) Though that wasn’t 7AM pre-coffee. I am pretty sure I shouldn’t talk to people if I am in a 7AM pre-coffee state.

  16. Mom – yes, absolutely… tackling one faux pas after another here at SINAFF!

    Marsha – agreed, you shouldn’t not talk to a companion, though (1) it was evident that they had run into each other on the platform rather than having come together, and (2) sure, chatter away, but you don’t have to YELL! Indoor voices, people. Shush.

    Randi – yeah, agreed, I’ve made lots of BFFs at bars, in waiting rooms, you know… but always after 7am and always after coffee. NEVER on Metro during the morning rush. It’s against the Code.

  17. Why didn’t you just get off, walk up a few doors, and grab a seat on the next car?

    • Probably should have, but I was on the inside of two seats and I had a lot of baggage with me… a heavy, rolling briefcase and one other purse. Plus, what kind of blog fodder would that have been? :-)

  18. Bronx Cheer for the logical resolutions:)

  19. To Nonnash:

    I also saw that guy on the Orange Line. That was Sen. Reid of Nevada.

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