Sometimes I buy expensive versions of things without understanding why. Some stuff’s just weird like that I guess — like toasters. I know I could have gotten a perfectly functional version without cracking a twenty. Yet somehow, if only through the existence of a luxury version of it, I found myself needing it as if it would magically fix me crab cakes for breakfast out of two pieces of bread. It doesn’t. Damn thing cost me three hundred bucks and I still burn my toast.
Last month I got a new alarm clock. Hundred bucks. If I set it for 6:30, it glows dimly at 6:00 and gradually increases in brightness, simulating a sunrise, until the full half hour is up. Pretty cool, actually — a gradual and serene way of greeting the morning. But then 6:30 hits and it plays a loud, mechanical bird noise and I want to stab myself with a fork. Waking up sucks no matter how much you spend on it.
Strangely enough, the only expensive thing I own that actually functions like an expensive thing should function was free. My sister and brother-in-law got me a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones for Christmas last year. I don’t know how much they cost, but I know headphones can cost five bucks and that these are not those headphones. These actually work: the sound quality is incredible, they completely drown out neighboring conversations, and they’ve yet to burn a single piece of toast. I’m almost angry about it. None of the expensive things I buy are ever worth the money.
It’s a 45-minute commute on Septa’s regional rail to my job in Philly and yesterday I forgot the headphones. Prior to the months of Bose-sponsored euphoria, this would have ruined my commute, possibly my entire week. I’d always sat in the Quiet Car to get some work done because it’s supposed to be exactly what it sounds like: a train car that is quiet. But it’s not. A Quiet Car and a quiet car are two completely different things.
A Quiet Car is just as loud as any other car, which means it’s actually louder, since, presumably, you’d be there expecting silence. There are signs everywhere explaining the rules of courtesy, but people ignore them and I’ve never seen a Septa employee shush anyone. It’s infuriating. Eventually, you just wear down and learn to despise everyone on the train: the thirtysomething real estate agent loudly negotiating deals on his phone at 9am, the completely oblivious teen changing his ringtone from something awful to something significantly more awful, the enabling Septa workers who allow it all — even the old lady keeping to herself and quietly working on a crossword puzzle, because fuck her too. It’s easier to hate everyone than it is to hate 97% of everyone and have to spend time identifying the 3% that don’t deserve a public death by firing squad.
But yesterday, those feelings were all surpressed. Forgetting the headphones didn’t really bother me. Maybe I was just having one of those inexplicably happy days, but it was actually refreshing to hear the conversations and ringtones and other disturbing noises again for a day. But that was the key: it was just a day. I was able to stomach it — almost enjoy it — because I knew that the next day, my headphones would again bring an end to the anarchically noisy Quiet Car.
About midway through my ride, at the Cornwells Heights station, a rather large grizzly bear boarded the train and sat down across the aisle from me. It seemed odd, a bear being on a train. But he seemed a gentle fellow. I saw no cause for alarm and just observed him for a while.
He flipped the back of the seat in front of him forward so that it was facing him (think: booth seats at a diner with no table in the middle) and put his feet up. Then he put on a pair of reading glasses that he clearly had no business wearing, bending the frames to get them around his massive head. They looked ready to snap if he flexed his jaw. Out came a copy of Rolling Stone and he started reading. He was a mumbler, the bear — the type who reads half aloud and half to himself, so a close listener can hear every ‘S’ pronounced but nothing more. With the magazine outstretched, his claws ripped through the left pages and it fell clumsily to the floor. He picked it up and opened it again. This time it was upside down, but he hadn’t seemed to notice. He went on mumbling.
The bear couldn’t read. And if he couldn’t read, he certainly didn’t need the magazine or the glasses to read it with. It all seemed very strange to me, not least of which was the simple fact that he was a bear and he was on a train to Philadelphia. But it was clear: He was just trying to do what was normal. He wanted to fit in.
A Septa worker made her way into our car, punching holes in passes and collecting money from folks. I flashed her my Zone 4 Trailpass and she gave me a nod. She reached the bear next.
Where ya headed? she asked.
Philadelphia, the bear said, excitedly.
Well yeah, I kinda figured that. What stop?
Um, I don’t know. How many are there?
She was clearly not in the mood for questions, from a bear least of all.
Just get off at 30th Street. And get your feet off the seats, can’t you read? she snapped, pointing to a sign listing Septa’s conduct policies, which included: “Keep feet off seats.”
She was incredibly rude, but the bear apologized and put his feet on the floor immediately. He handed her his fare and she continued on up the aisle to the other passengers.
Like the flip of a switch, I suddenly noticed all the ignorant people whom I’d grown to despise aboard the train. My forgotten headphones mattered again. Day: ruined. There were three people talking loudly on phones, a group of girls giggling obnoxiously every ten seconds, and one guy playing a game on his phone with the sound effects turned all the way up. Every single person was making some kind of disturbance. I watched the woman check everyone’s tickets without saying a word to them about their noisiness — the same as it always was with the Quiet Car. But the rudeness of the woman, the kindness of the bear, the hypocritical bias given to certain rules — it all boiled to a familiar rage in an instant. With the woman looking right at me, I kicked the back of the empty seat in front of me forward and propped my feet up.
She saw it and was less than appreciative. Hey! she shouted, quickly walking toward me. I just told him to get his feet down and now you’re gonna do that right in front of me?
Yup. Until you start enforcing the rules equally and apologize to that bear, my feet are staying right here. The bear glanced over, seemingly surprised that anyone could have noticed he was a bear.
‘The hell are you talking about?
The quiet rules. You just walked past ten people who are all breaking the rules of the Quiet Car and didn’t say a word. If they don’t have to be quiet, why do I have to take my feet down? Or why does that bear who was very polite to you despite your rudeness?
It was becoming quite a scene.
You’re gonna get kicked off the train in a minute, buddy.
Go ahead, but you’re going to have to kick all those people off the train too.
They don’t gotta get off — just you!
Explain that to me, I said.
Why are some rules ignored and some are enforced? Is that just your personal prejudice against grizzly bears or am I missing my official copy of the Septa Sentencing Guidelines?
A man from the car behind us overheard the argument and had come walking into our car. He wore street clothes, but spoke quietly to her and she listened. I figured he had to be an undercover supervisor — Septa does that. I overheard him saying something about being consistent and something about a warning. She nodded and he walked away. Then she walked to the front of the car so she was facing everyone.
Excuse me folks, she bellowed authoritatively. You’re currently riding in the Quiet Car and you’re more than welcome to continue to do so. But we do have rules for a reason and if they aren’t followed we do reserve the right to refuse service to a passenger or passengers. This is only a warning, but if I have to tell anyone again, that — she paused — person will be asked to exit the train at the next stop. Are there any questions about that?
I took my feet down from the seat and folded my hands, smiling. The bear looked over. He didn’t dare say a word. He just grinned at me and the smile snapped his undersized glasses at the left hinge and they fell to the floor. Embarrassed, the clumsy fellow gathered the pieces and put them next to him on the seat and went back to ‘reading’ his shredded Rolling Stone. Nobody asked any questions and the woman walked past me with an evil stare to the other car.
If I’d remembered my headphones, I wouldn’t have needed them. At last, there was relative silence. The Quiet Car was a quiet car.
With a bear on it.
[Note: This is a battle that I’ve been waging for over a year now. I ride the allegedly quiet Quiet Car because I usually have some work to do or would like to read in peace, yet people are ignorant jerks who don’t follow the rules, even with tons of open seats in the other cars. Septa workers also don’t say anything to these unruly savages. Please, if you ever ride a Septa train and you’re in the Quiet Car, have the self-awareness and human decency to shut the hell up.]