Three Scenes from the “Quiet Car”

Three Scenes from the “Quiet Car”

I

A young woman speaks loudly on her phone in English. She makes a point of saying, repeatedly, that this is Avery’s last day. But who is Avery, and why is today Avery’s last? It is one of the hottest days of the summer and the air conditioning on the train is struggling. Everyone on board is trying not to move any more than is absolutely necessary. The young woman holds the phone away from her and uses it as a fan. The volume is turned up so high that everyone in the car can hear the voice on the other end as she waves it. The disembodied voice is rabbiting on about the heat and the lack of fans in the office. The young woman on the train puts the phone to her ear again, and says, “Maybe you could do your webinar from the beach!” She laughs drolly at her joke, and then says that, sadly, her own internship in the Netherlands is coming to an end. She lists all the things in her apartment she’s trying to get rid of. “Sorry, I threw that rug out already,” she says. “I walked until I found the cleanest trash can I could find. They don’t have enough clean garbage bins in this country.” The Dutch couple across the aisle glance at each other. I guess they find it hard to argue with that, so they simply nod and go back to their newspapers.

II

A middle-aged Irishman shrugs himself out of a leather jacket. He’s wearing a tight white t-shirt underneath, and when the sleeves ride up you can see “Heidi” tattoed on one bicep, a Celtic cross on the other. He is lean and sinewy. His face has that hard, weathered look of someone who has done drugs or prison, probably both. As the train pulls out of the station, he sits down directly underneath the “Stilte” sign and flips his pack of cigarettes onto the little table next to his seat. Then he pulls out his phone and says “Call office.” In three seconds, he’s got someone in Dublin on the line. The connection’s bad, so he has to raise his voice. “Rotterdam prison. Big success!” he says. “They really need our software.” There’s a brief pause, and then a joke about Dutch food—potatoes. Next, he delivers the news that Jim has doubtless been dreading: “It looks like you better pack your bags for Slovenia. You’re going to be visiting some women’s prisons, Jim!” Pause. “No, I think that’s Slovakia.” A Dutchman leans over the seats and taps him on the shoulder, pointing to the sign above. The Irishman says into the phone: “I don’t what ‘Stilte’ means, Jim, but I think I better go.” He spends the rest of the journey nervously twirling a cigarette between his fingers, and staring longingly at his phone.

III

“Can we talk, Dad?” My teenager is in the train car with me. We’re coming back from a photo exhibit by a famous Dutch photographer named Ed van der Elsken. The exhibit, “Lust for Life,” delivered on its promises of nudity, drugs, counter-culture, and social awkwardness between father and daughter. “Sure,” I whisper. Then, trying to preempt discomfort, I ask her: “What did you think of the exhibit?” She pauses for a second, then says: “I think if you were naked in Holland in the 1970s, then there’s a good chance that guy took your picture.” It’s an accurate assessment, and I tell her so. “But that’s not what I was asking,” she says. Then she points at all the others in the quiet car who are talking on their phones. That’s when I understand that she doesn’t want to talk to me. She wants to know if she can call her friends. Doing my best Dutchman impression, I point to the “Stilte” sign and give a little shrug. She gets up and goes out into the space between the train cars. When she returns, she whispers: “I’m going to get off one stop early and see my friends.” I tell her that sounds like fun. And then she says, with only a trace of sarcasm, “I’m glad I left the quiet car. It’s too noisy in here to talk on the phone.”  

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