The silent treatment

Remember how the MBTA hired mimes to show off its new quiet cars? That inspired one writer to imagine how they’d do as the noise police.

By Con Chapman
July 17, 2011

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Monday morning, Park Street Station. I’m part of a crack team of mimes - Mime Team Six – assembled by the T to combat inconsiderate behavior by riders.

“OK, here’s the drill,” says our team leader. “We got people ruinin’ the T experience for other riders. Talkin’ loud on cellphones, clippin’ fingernails, flossin’ teeth.”

The mime next to me holds his nose. Another screws up his face.

“First, don’t get into any shouting matches with riders.”

We look at her as if she’s crazy. A mime across the room spins his finger next to his ear.

“Sorry, I say that every meeting,” she says sheepishly. “The second rule is, use discretion. If somebody doesn’t get up for a pregnant woman, don’t go ballistic. Go mimetic.” She looks around. “Anybody?”

A man rocks his arms back and forth, pretending he is cradling an infant. He scowls.

“Right – silent shaming, so the guy knows he’s doing something he’s not supposed to. OK, folks, let’s roll!”

We make gestures of enthusiasm – high-fives, fist bumps – and hustle out of the room.

I stake out a position on the Red Line platform to Cambridge. I’ve been told I’ll see the most self-centered behavior on the entire system on this line. A train slows to a stop, and I spot my first perps: two young intellectuals having a highbrow debate in loud voices.

“I divide Husserl’s thinking into three distinct segments,” one of them says. “Halle, Gottingen, and Freiburg.”

His friend begs to differ. “He clearly did his definitive work in Gottingen, so everything he wrote should be viewed through the prism of Ideen zu einer reinen Phenomenologie und phanomenologischen Philosophie.”

Incredible. The kid is speaking in italics. Nobody has the right to disturb the peace of a subway ride that way!

I take a seat opposite them and mock their pretentious dialogue by having a pantomime conversation with a wino sleeping off a binge. The eggheads get the message and start fiddling with their smartphones. Justice is served.

I get off at Central Square and board a bus bound for Watertown. I spy a cocky young man sprawled across two seats. I’m on the case.

I indicate I’d like to sit next to him.

“There’s empty seats everywhere,” he says dismissively.

How do I express that more riders may soon get on? I’ve got it! I grab the bar overhead and make like I’m being squeezed from both sides.

“What the hell is this – charades? Git outta here!” He pushes me to the floor, and I bang my head on a seat. I grimace in pain as life and art intersect.

I crawl forward to get a transfer from the driver, my hands clasped in a begging gesture.

“Where you goin’?” he asks.

I want to get on the commuter rail headed west. I pretend I’m an engineer and pull an imaginary whistle.

“No transfers from bus to commuter rail,” he says. “You gotta buy a ticket on the train.”

Fair enough. He drops me off at Auburndale Station, and I board the next outbound train. In an instant, I’m in a cellphone-free fire zone.

“I’m on the train . . .” says one man. Duh.

“Can I talk to Mommy?” another croons.

“I got a new pair of shoes!” a woman exclaims, recounting her lunch-hour adventure.

Small potatoes, all of them. Then I spot a bigger spud to fry, the Moby-Dick of obnoxious commuters. A big guy, tie loosened at his neck.

“Why would I do that?” he brays into his phone. “If I don’t get 4 mil, I’m walking!’ ”

Billy Big Deal. His kind are the worst. They don’t just talk; they’ve gotta be heard talking. They’re showoffs.

It’s Mime Time.

I plop down next to him and pull an imaginary cellphone from my pocket. I dial, wait for my fictional investment banker to pick up, then begin a silent conversation. I nod knowingly, glance at my pricey watch, gaze out the window to gain a little perspective, then give an enthusiastic thumbs up to my seatmate. Hey pal, my deal’s bigger!

The guy looks at me like I’m the social nuisance. He grows quieter until he’s speaking in a whisper.

“Listen, I’ll call you back later. There’s some weirdo sitting next to me.”

I bow low and bid the man adieu with a jaunty wave. Mission accomplished.

Con Chapman is the author of The 5:05, a one-act play about commuting on the T. Send comments to

  • July 17, 2011 cover
  • July 17, 2011 cover
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