Q: Engine Bob, why don’t have they have a no cell-phone “quiet car” on Metro North, like they do on Amtrak? Surely, enough quiet-seeking commuters could fill a train car?
A: What a fine, fine question. My fingers are twitching already. In fact, hang on a sec while I take another blood-pressure pill, because your question has just reminded me of the afternoon, last year, that I took a New Haven train home to Manhattan from South Norwalk and had to listen to a… um… Okay, she was one badass gangsta ho.
And, sitting in the seat across the aisle from mine, she proceeded to whip our her cell phone and call each and every one of her “Bridgeport girls” (about eight in all) and regale each of them with tales (spoken at full volume) of her latest man’s considerable endowment—and I’m not talking about his investments.
Stuck on a packed train and unwilling to give up my seat for fear of not finding another, I listened to the gum-popping young lady for nearly two hours, all the time listening to my own voice, buried deep within me, and whimpering: “Why, oh why, can’t Metro North have just one car on which cell phones are banned?”
Why, indeed. After all, you say, doesn’t Amtrak have such no-cell-phone cars? Damn right, sir, yes they do. Just one disclaimer before I continue, okay? I am about to reiterate the railroad’s position on this issue—NOT defend it or even, frankly, attempt to explain it. Because it would take Nero Wolfe to decipher the wisdom of this one.
Metro North’s position on the matter boils down to two arguments. First, everybody needs a seat. When trains are packed—as, during rush hours, we all know they are—the railroad can’t adopt restricted-use cars because these might preclude some passengers from having a seat. (Interestingly, the no-cell-phone cars on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains operate along the same principle: Only on “non-capacity” trains where there are far more seats than passengers does the conductor have clearance to designate one of his coaches as a cell-phone-free zone.) Anyway, for Metro North, the policy is: All seats, all over the train, are for everyone.
Yes, I know: Anyone CAN sit in a no-cell-phone car—he’s just not allowed to use his stinking cell phone when he does! Seems like a cogent enough argument. And it’s one that escorts me nicely to Metro North’s Argument No. 2. Are you ready?
The First Amendment.
Yes, this is what I was told when I pressed an MTA official on the cell-phone matter not too long ago. The railroad will not put itself in a position in which it risks being accused of restricting someone’s speech. But, you retort, the railroad would NOT be restricting speech—just the use of a device into which a passenger elects to speak. He could still say whatever he wishes to the open air, right? Removing a cell phone no more abridges the right of free speech than, say, removing a microphone from someone’s hand would—right?
Right. But there comes a time when you know that even the best arguments are going to get you nowhere. And, with the Metro North official I’d managed to collar, I knew I had very quickly reached such a point. Argue all you want, Perry Mason, the policy’s not changing.
To be fair, the official was sympathetic: Yes, some people’s cell phone habits are deplorable, he said, and we’ve all “been there,” as he put it—meaning, presumably, stuck beside a Minnie Pearl who cackles into her phone all the way to Purdy’s. He also reminded me that Metro North conductors have of late been instructed to make a general announcement on crowded trains, asking people to please limit their cell-phone use “in consideration of your fellow passengers.” Such pleas, as we know, rank in effectiveness right up there with Manhattan’s jaywalking law—or the one strictly prohibiting the sale of Louis Vuitton knockoffs on Canal Street.
Meantime, sir, don’t get your hopes up about a no-cell-phone car on your train. Metro North is more likely to roll out a squash-court car first.