EVER since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car. The Quiet Car, in case you don’t know, is usually the first car in Amtrak’s coach section, right behind business class. Loud talking is forbidden there — any conversations are to be conducted in whispers. Cellphones off; music and movies on headphones only. There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon. The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol. Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car’s rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.
Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.
“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”
“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”
“Yes,” said the woman behind them.
My husband won’t go to the movies anymore, at least not in the evening, and the reason is twofold — other people attending are so rude and noisy, and I spend too much time hissing at them or saying, loudly, “Shut up!”
Which is, yes, very rude of me.
I admit it, I lost it last week.
I was sitting, reading a book and savoring a coffee, enjoying the luxury of leisure in Manhattan before meeting a friend for dinner. A woman right beside me — with lots of room to sit further away — shouted into her cellphone in Portuguese.
“Can you please lower your voice!?” I finally asked, fearing a nasty fight. To my surprise, she moved immediately and came back to apologize, explaining she’d been speaking to her son, via Skype, in Brazil.
Silence is healing, soothing, calming. It lowers our heart rate and speed of respiration. It allows us to focus on our other senses. It offers us a deep, refreshed sleep. It allows us to focus and concentrate our attention, whether on work, reading or a spectacular work of art in a museum or gallery.
In this post, from July 2011, you’ll read all the sounds I became newly aware of on an eight-day silent retreat Jose and I took. I posted several short essays that week, as peeling away the cocoon of noise/music/conversation/traffic laid bare a fresh set of insights and appreciations that were simply unattainable within the noisy distractions of everyday life.
When Jose and I re-emerged, reluctantly and nervously, into “real life” I immediately noticed how edgy and anxious noise renders me. I eat more, more often and more quickly. My mood alters, and rarely for the better.
I treasure silence, an increasingly rare commodity.
Do you savor silence?
Where, in your daily life, do you find or create it?
As some of you may know, a hurricane is due to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. sometime this morning. I’m giving a speech Tuesday evening at 7:00 pm in Minneapolis, Minnesota so Friday night, Jose suggested I jump on a train to make sure I actually got there in time, as all of New York’s public transit was being shut down, and flights were sure to be canceled. By Sunday evening — as I was almost at my destination on Amtrak — the wait time to speak to a customer service rep for Delta airlines was between seven and ten hours…
I bought a $227 one-way ticket (with nowhere to sleep but sitting up in my chair) and hoped for the best.
So, here I am, writing this from my Minneapolis hotel room, and here’s my story…
I left from Croton-Harmon, the Amtrak station about 15 minutes drive north of our home, to get to Albany, a two-hour journey, where I changed trains for the 15 hour trip to Chicago. I initially boarded the Ethan Allen Express, named for a Vermont hero.
The Hudson Valley, where I begin this trip, is one of the prettiest places in the United States, its trees now a blast of red, yellow, orange, brown and crimson — all likely to disappear after the hurricane blows through this week. The train tracks hug the eastern shore of the Hudson River, speeding (a relative word — crawling, compared to a TGV) past 18th. century towns and landmarks like West Point, the military academy. We passed Our Lady of Restoration Chapel, built in 1840 facing the river, where I was married (the first time) in May 1992.
The car is filled with students. A young girl is busy rolling cigarettes on her notebook, carefully adding filters. The girl behind her is knitting a gray scarf. Two young men behind me discuss their friends.
“She married a prince of some foreign country! That’s crazy. She’ll never have to work and someday she’ll be a queen.”
The train for Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited, leaves Albany at 7:05 p.m. and I settle into my aisle seat, a large woman in the window seat whose bum will press up against mine (and vice versa) for the next 15 hours, even though we don’t speak. The train is packed, and I can hear many people saying they, too, are fleeing Hurricane Sandy and whatever havoc it might wreak.
I sit in the lounge car, now that it’s dark, and watch a DVD on my laptop, Frozen River, an excellent 2008 feature film about two desperately poor women who smuggle illegal immigrants in their car trunk across the St. Lawrence between the U.S. and Canada. It’s an apt choice because at Syracuse, two hours north of Albany (and 1.5 hours south of the Canadian border) immigration officials climb aboard and check some people’s identification. I overhear them say they are removing someone with all their luggage.
In the lounge car, a bearded young Aussie in a black hoodie is yammering on to a pretty young Hispanic girl who, with great pride, tells him she passed an employer’s drug test by using her mother’s urine.
We all sleep in whatever position we can manage within our seats, but no one bothers to pull the dark blue curtains so the brilliant orange lights of the passing landscape keep flickering through the glass. My soft challis scarf makes a perfect eye-shade wrapped around my head and my wool cape is long enough to make a warm blanket and small pillow.
I fall asleep at 1:00 a.m. but am awake at 4:00 as we stop in Cleveland, Ohio. A man three rows ahead of me is reading his laptop, the screen blindingly bright in the darkness.
The train crosses northern New York, a narrow sliver of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and into Illinois. A man got on in Albany struggling to carry a huge ice chest filled with food, as well as his rolling suitcase, black fabric covered with pink flamingos, so full he cannot zip it closed. He looks poor and scrawny and tired, like many of the passengers. This is the America that will vote in a week for their new President.
Who will they choose?
This is a whole other America, one I rare see in my affluent suburban bubble near Manhattan, where a devastating moment is your kid not getting into Harvard or Yale.
At sunrise, around 7:00 a.m., we straggle to the lounge car for coffee and tea. One woman’s hair (like mine) is squashed and crimped from behind — bedhead.
I sip my tea and eat my pain au chocolat that Jose packed for me, and watch the sun gilding the shorn cornfields of Indiana, a vegetative high and tight. It seeps across the pick-up trucks and barns and silos and quiet farmhouses. Cows and horses stand in their paddocks, waiting for the day to begin.
We barrel through this quiet landscape, timeless, lovely, calm.
I have a four hour layover, from 9:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. until my train leaves for Minneapolis, (its final destination is Seattle). I buy a locker (using a scanner that takes my fingerprint! for $12) and stuff my things into it. I buy my three usual weekend newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times, and head out into the sunshine.
Right outside the train station is the Chicago River, crossed by a number of bridges. This is the view from the Adams Street bridge.
I was in Chicago in November 2011 for the first time, so I know where I am and where to go, which I consider such a luxury — feeling at home in a place far away. I head toward Lake Michigan to find a spot for breakfast, to settle in and read my newspapers.
But first, I want to say hello to my history, and head a few blocks over to State Street, to this white tower, built in 1912, developed by my great grandfather Louis M. Stumer. The architects, Holabird and Roche, did many of the city’s grandest buildings. I love having a personal connection to this great city and a building that still stands at its heart.
I settle in for breakfast at the Corner Bakery, and pick up a sandwich for the rest of my journey, another 8.5 hours further west to Minneapolis.
I board the Empire Builder, a two-storey train I last took from here in August 2002, (heading to Vancouver, Canada to see my mother through brain surgery) that goes all the way west through another half-dozen enormous states, to Seattle, where its final miles of track are mere feet from the Pacific Ocean. (I was then in Dayton, Ohio researching my first book, about women and guns, when the surgeon told me to get there as fast as I could. Last-minute airfares are so costly, I went by bus and train.)
This time I’m seated beside a woman who is a retired archeologist, whose late husband was an astronomer whose experiments rode inside two space missions. She did work in Michoacan, a state in Mexico I’ve also visited and knows Santa Fe, NM well, where my husband was born, so we have lots to discuss.
But I soon withdraw into music on my laptop and an empty two-chair spot, to sleep as much as I can. I listen to Briton John Renbourn’s acoustic guitar and Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, — gentle, meditative — both a perfect soundtrack as the sun sets over the fields of Wisconsin. We stand still — waiting, every time for a freight train ahead of us — as the fading light paints a stand of white birch trees to our right a soft pink.
The train rattles along, through towns like Red Wing, Minnesota and Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Here’s a photo of the station at Columbia, Wisconsin; a few minutes later a small parade of kids came by in their Hallowe’en costumes.
As I walk the car’s narrow aisle, I see a group of women knitting the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. “Are those…feathers?” I ask one. “Yup. It’s going to be a cowl,” she says, showing me creamy wool with gleaming feathers sticking out of it. “This ain’t your grandma’s knitting!”
I get to talking to two of the women — 38 of them belong to a passionate Minneapolis group that’s just gone to Chicago for a three-day knitting conference. Their fingers are all flying: an orange sweater, a pale pink sock, a black hat. One offers to make me a muffler, complete with feathers, if I pay for the materials. Yay!
One woman lived for years in Pakistan, and her friend has been to Afghanistan and Thailand and Pakistan. People are amazing. You never know who’s sitting beside you or behind you or in front of you — until you find out.
We stop for a brief break somewhere in the Wisconsin/Minnesota? darkness. People are eager for fresh air, a cigarette, a chance to walk around a bit.
This is a Santa Fe car parked on the tracks beside us as we took our micro-liberty.
We shuffle back in and climb the narrow stairs, as this train has two levels, including my favorite — the observation car — whose individual seats face outwards. When I did this trip in 2002, and came all the way from Seattle back to NY, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
You really can have no idea how beautiful the U.S. until it has flashed past you for days and nights on end, mile after mile after mile: farms and fields and rivers and cities and ducks on still ponds and flying geese and abandoned factories and slick college campuses and huge mansions atop hills…
I ask a conductor if Minneapolis is halfway across.
“Oh, no! That might be in Montana.”
We are late, hardly unusual for Amtrak. Americans don’t like the train much, (or, to be correct the wealthy and powerful lobbyists for the auto and airline industry do not), so the system and its cars is slow, outdated and inefficient.
We pull into Minneapolis at 11:00 p.m. Sunday night. I started my trip at 3:58 p.m. Saturday in New York.
A man with two enormous incisions, with fresh black thread sticking out of his stitches, his right hand swollen like a balloon, clutches his small, trembling reddish dog against his enormous stomach. “She doesn’t like stairs,” he tells us.
I stumble into a taxi and head for my hotel. I’ll have two full days to recover before I speak about my book, Malled, and retail, to 100+ students at the University of Minnesota.