op-ed

The Case For Quiet

Sharkhats, Flickr Creative Commons

Sharkhats, Flickr Creative Commons

Why does the noisiest person get the right of way?

I stopped by my neighborhood restaurant yesterday to read and enjoy a little grub. The food was really just an excuse–the reading was the thing. A little Bukowski always hits the spot.

A family of six sat in the middle of the dining room, presumably a mother, father, grandparents, and two children. The oldest child may have been three years old, the younger one half that.  I’m not the best judge of these things, but they were both of high chair age.

The family seemed very nice. They liked their kids, and the adults enjoyed each others’ company. I read my newspaper while they waited for their food. When my waitress came to take my order I realized just how little I cared to eat, so I ordered just a salad.

Why go to a restaurant if I was not hungry? Because I like being around people. I don’t like interacting with them, but I like having a little action happening around me — the dull murmur of distant conversations, the clanking of silverware, background noise. I write in diners, I read in diners. We all have our quirks, and mine is taking a “gorillas in the mist” seat in public places — the owl in the eaves, both there and not there.

The family’s dinners arrived. I finished the newspaper and broke out my Bukowski. At that same moment, something went wrong with the restaurant’s sound system. It sounded like a radio stuck between two stations–two songs playing simultaneously, fighting each other for aural dominance. I stared at the page, but I couldn’t focus on the words. My brain could not be bothered with anything other than the mystery of the battling music.

I looked over at the family’s table. The father had propped his cellphone against a ketchup bottle so that it sat like a little television screen in front of the baby. Whether the phone was at full volume is unclear, but what was clear were the words accompanying the animation the little tot watched: The wheels on the bus go round and round / round and round / round and round / The wheels on the bus go round and round….

Nobody at the table seemed bothered by; well, by anything. The adults were engrossed in their meals. Not one of them even looked at the kid. There was absolutely no recognition from that table that perhaps the rest of (or at least some of) the patrons in that establishment didn’t want to listen to “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Trying to read Bukowski while the wipers on the bus went woosh woosh woosh and the restaurant’s sound system blared ’80s music was impossible. I covered my ears, but I couldn’t drown either one of them out. Two songs and an eyeful of narrative was much more than my tiny brain could process, so I left.

The incident bothered me, but not precisely for the reason that you might think. They were there first, after all, and a restaurant isn’t a library. There is no expectation in a diner that everyone should be quiet so that I can read, and yet there is an expectation, at least on my part, that when we’re in public we pay a little attention to our surroundings.

I ran a snarky little post on a social media site, more than anything to see what kind of replies I would get. The responses probably fell into a pretty standard bell curve, with “why do you hate children” at one end and “people should control their brats” at the other. Most folks bunched up around a “we should be thoughtful” median.

But what does “thoughtful” mean? It’s an interesting problem. Some suggested that I should’ve been more thoughtful of the plight of a family trying to keep young children entertained. Others thought that the family should’ve been more thoughtful of the other diners in the restaurant. Both are right, yet both can’t coexist, and thus I had to leave.

This is a fundamental problem of life in the United States: The quiet must yield to the louds’ behavior, provided no laws are being broken. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the neighbor with the gas leaf blower who apparently has never heard of a rake, the kid in the Honda with the sub-woofer in the trunk who can’t find the volume knob, or the dude in the next booth who wants to shout into his phone while everyone else is trying to enjoy their meals. We are not entitled to quiet if they want loud because it’s a free country–because it’s their right.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, other than maybe that there’s a corollary in our current political mess. The NRA has 3-4 million members, yet their loudness drowns out any effort among the other 296 million of us to talk about gun violence. The Tea Party Caucus claims 52 seats across both houses of congress, yet their loudness brings the federal government to the brink over and over. Cable media pundits, talk radio hosts, Donald Trump –loud, loud, loud. Loud gets things done. Loud clears out the readers.

In my ideal world, folks would be free to be as loud as they wanted to be. They would be free to text in the middle of a movie theater or while barreling down the freeway at 80 miles per hour. In my perfect world, citizens would be free to walk around armed like Rambo if that’s what floated their boats. But here’s the catch: They wouldn’t want any of these things, because they’d recognize that when in public, quiet and polite is what’s best for everyone.

Or something like that. I think I’ll go read now, but I probably won’t eat. I’m not very hungry.

Categories: op-ed

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