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Today's Story by Alex Bernstein

Phil Szecharis has perfected the ability to look straight at a person yet not see them.

The Quiet Car

“Ladies and gentlemen,” blares the intercom, “as a reminder, Car 482 is the quiet car. Please refrain from cell phone usage, converse in subdued tones, and respect your fellow passengers.”

The quiet car is that remote island floating in an endless, overcrowded sea of train platforms, subways, waiting areas, and commuters. Peace, isolation, decompression. The opportunity to go deep deep within yourself to find your place of perfect bliss.

The quiet car is my sanctuary.

I wish I could be more desensitized. But frankly I’m pretty desensitized as is. When I first moved to Westbrook the anonymity was exhilarating. But ten years later, after endless little league games, and good-standing synagogue membership, all indistinction is gone. You can’t get on a train without seeing three to five people you know.

Ed Lane has a strategy. He wears massive, early-70s headphones, unapologetically – even with a three-piece suit. The headphones have the added effect of saying: “Listening to tunes! Back off!” Though, I often wonder if the cord snaking into his pocket is really attached to anything.

On the other hand, Phil Szecharis has perfected the ability to look straight at a person yet not see them. Once, he took a seat directly next to me.

“Hey Phil,” I said.

“Oh – oh – hey,” said Phil, sincerely. “Didn’t see you there.”


I have my own tricks. The endless-stare-into-the-Blackberry, for example. I’ll even stare at a dead Blackberry. The art is to never look up.


The flip side is my neighbor and fellow congregant Trevor Baron. Catching site of you, Trevor will chase after you, eagerly shouting your name. Still, for him I’ll sit and converse in subdued tones.

“Say – I think your Blackberry’s dead,” whispers Trev, cheerfully. “Are you coming to temple tonight?”

“Oh – I might come later,” I lie, and get off at Westfield, as he continues to Fanwood.


The quiet car is protected not by conductors but by disgruntled travelers who will defend the car to their last. My hero, Bob, is a white-goateed Fernando Rey with bifocals who will invade any talkative stranger’s space in order to protect the sanctity of his own.

I only ever spoke to Bob once and our conversation was brief.

It was a Tuesday evening. A short, feisty, 30-ish businessman in tight, pinstripe suit barked into his cellphone.

“I’ll be home when I’m home!” he snarled. “We’ll deal with it then!”

The entire car glared. Miscreant! Philistine! they shouted with their eyes.

Bob, one row away, got up.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Excuse me,” said Pinstripe.

“You can’t talk here,” said Bob, politely.

“How ’bout you mind your business?”

Bob unfazed, bent over.

“This is the quiet car.”

Pinstripe stood.

“I don’t care what it is, Einstein. Why don’t you mind your business?!”

“This is the quiet car,” repeated Bob.

“The quiet car?”

“Yes,” said Bob, slowly repeating each word as if to a four-year old, “this – is – the – quiet – car.”

Pinstripe clenched and unclenched. Finally, he gathered his things, and stepped out of his seat.

“Ought to pop you one!” he said, backing out. “Right here and now!”

And he was gone. Hushed pleased grins filled the car. Our little defender of the peace settled into his seat.

Emotional, overwhelmed, I got up and edged towards Bob.

“Great job!” I whispered.

But he raised a finger to his lips and said, simply,



Alex Bernstein is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work has appeared at BluePrintReview, The Rumpus, The Legendary, The Big Jewel, MonkeyBicycle, Yankee Pot Roast, and Swink, among others. Please visit him at www.promonmars.com.


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