Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: Calling on train etiquette


When I can, or when I have no other choice, I like to stare deep into the abyss that is the human psyche. It is a puzzle away from which I find it difficult to tear my brain. When faced with a specimen of such uniquely selfish behavior, I feel compelled to explore the mysterious depths of personality that would lead someone to be that way. So it was with "the bro" on the train.

Traveling home from New York City on the new(ish) Amtrak line from Penn Station up through the Pioneer Valley, my lady wife and I had the misfortune to find ourselves across the aisle from "the bro." This gentleman had boarded well before New York, and was travelling up to the upper reaches of Vermont, a lengthy journey indeed. Multiple times during the ride, in the gulfs between stations, he pulled out his phone and would loudly call someone. These were not calls of urgency, or anything scheduled, mere acts of callous boredom. The actions of a man so bored that he was calling acquaintances at random, and just catching up, completely oblivious to the dozens of other people in the car forced to listen to his conversation.

(This is a phenomenon that still mystifies me: how people on cellphones seem to think they are in a magical bubble of silence, like the phone booths I have heard of mentioned in days of yore. The mobile phone has been a common feature of Western society for more than 20 years now. There has been plenty of time to learn how far your voice carries when using one.)

He was not unprovisioned with distractions. Indeed, he had a laptop and the train provided free wireless Internet, meaning that he had access, literally at his fingertips, to the entirety of human achievement, and he could find nothing else to do. I was left with the conclusion that he simply had been left alone with his own brain for too long. That vestigial organ was unable to amuse, or even occupy, itself quietly, even with the whole Internet in front of it. Thus he was reaching out to acquaintances, ones he had clearly not spoken with in some time, to fill them in on events of the last several years.

It would have been annoying enough for those of us who had passed kindergarten, and thus could sit quietly, to have to listen to a typically inane, boredom-driven phone call, but the bro had no problem going into deeply personal topics.

"Do you remember that chick, Dana, he was with?" he told the acquaintance on the other end of the phone, and the entire train car. "She died! Yeah, she was pregnant with his kid and she just died. She was off heroin, but he didn't see the tox screen. He said it was worse than anything he had to deal with in Iraq. I guess I shouldn't have told you that since your wife's pregnant." (And yes, he referred to his veteran friend's deceased significant other as "that chick he was with." Don't be a bro, kids)

At this point, I began to contemplate the possibility that what I was hearing was some form of performance art. Surely no human could be that oblivious to their own behavior. I toyed with the idea of making a parody phone call in response. I could clap my phone to the side of my head and loudly spew the most awkwardly unpleasant nonsense I could come up with and see if it penetrated the bro's consciousness. I could discuss the prognosis of an uncomfortable rash, a fictitious friend's jail sentence, or made-up "Game of Thrones" spoilers for all to "overhear."

Perhaps I should not be so harsh on the bro. It may well be that long distance train travel itself is to blame for his behavior. After all, it is not a particularly common a mode of travel within the United States, so the etiquette is somewhat less established. In air transit, the separation from the ground by thousands of feet leads even the least self-aware traveler to understand that this is not a place for casual phone calls. And inter-city buses still benefit from years of ingrained elementary school discipline.

When the Berkshires gets its fabled rail link, we'll get to be the ones who decide on this etiquette. But if you make phone calls from the train, you are a twisted, soulless person.


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