Shush!

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.

Navigating the newspaper gauntlet

GOOD MORNING, said the man, smiling broadly as he made eye contact with me. He was holding a stack of Examiner newspapers. As he offered me a copy of his newspaper, he thrust it right into my path and I had to juke to dodge it.

“No thanks, I have the Post,” I smiled back as I continued walking towards the station in my frenzied, not-now-I’m-so-late pace.

“Examiner’s better!” he yelled after me as I entered the tunnel. I turned around and he was looking right at me, still smiling.

I don’t think so,” I replied, meeting his stare and flashing that smile I reserve only for people who are starting to annoy me.

Such is the gauntlet Metro commuters are forced to run at my station each morning. “Helpful” Paper People all but block the entrance to the station, thrusting unsolicited newspapers into the already-full hands of those who are simply attempting to catch a train. On any given morning, there are at least two people, sometimes three or four, whose sole job appears to be to leave the station empty-handed, having provided reading material for harried commuters.

The Examiner competes directly with the Express, which is a boiled-down version of the Washington Post, cut and culled to suit the commuter’s limited attention span. It’s also printed in a tabloid format, half the size of the regular newspaper, and stapled, which means you can read it without violating your seatmate’s personal space, or hold it with one hand if you stand.

One could see this as genius on the part of the newspapers. Plenty of groggy, mute commuters find it easier to just accept the paper and keep on walking.  It’s a captive audience who would rather read something – anything – than sit and stare at their fellow train passengers or pick their cuticles or drool while they snore.

On the other hand, as a card-carrying adult, I am fully capable of supplying myself with enough reading material and/or electronic diversions to last me until my stop in the city. What makes them think I need whatever they’re handing out? Why can’t they just leave stacks of the papers in a box right at the entrance and allow those who desire a copy to pick up their own?

The real problem comes when a bus drops off and a large crowd attempts to funnel through the tunnel at once. The people who actually do want a newspaper gravitate towards the lady who hands them out, causing a bit of a cluster for the rest of us who just want to keep on walking trainward.

Usually I ignore the paper people, but this morning’s exchange was different. I’ve never been challenged by one of these folks. Why did he seek to engage me in a back-and-forth of my-paper-is-better-than-yours? Why should he care what I’m reading?

I’m a loyal Washington Post reader. Two years ago, when we made our ill-fated move to Central Pennsylvania – four whole hours from the White House – the first thing we did was scour the town to see if we could buy The Post. It was a college town, after all, yet even the downtown so-called “News Stand” didn’t carry it. We found it at a gas station / market 13 miles away and happily made that drive each Sunday to pay five bucks for our beloved printed connection to our old life.

Although there is talk of the imminent death of the print media, the fact remains that you can’t read the news on the internet in a subway tunnel. You need hard copy material. They know this. And so they persist in the handing out of unrequested newspapers.

Paper People, here’s the thing: NO THANKS.  I’m sure you get paid for each paper you distribute, but I don’t need you to tuck one into my hands. If I want to read it, I’ll grab it out of the box myself. And even if I don’t take yours, there’s a really good chance that someone who didn’t have the energy to say no has left a copy on the seat of the train, and if so? I’ll just read theirs.  Because, y’know, it’s cool to recycle.

M’kay? Have a good day!