strangers on a train

Pieter Hugo

Pieter Hugo of Hyena Men fame is now showing Nollywood. In light of African history – genocide and colonialism – these photos take on a whole other level of spookiness that’s very unsettling.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between photography and other mediums quite a bit over the past couple of weeks, and it occurs to me that though video gives viewers a much better immediate sense of a person’s mannerisms, voice and quirks, photos are much easier to live with on a daily basis. I’d look at videos of someone I want to remember on occasion, but a photo could sit on my desk indefinitely. Photos are less intrusive, and trigger more memories and reflection than a video, which, for me, demands attention to the present recorded in the video.

One memory I wish I had set down in silver is a random conversation I had with a woman named, if memory serves, Lisa on a train from Toronto to Montreal years ago.

She sits down next to me and can’t figure out how to turn on her brand new CD player because it’s the first one she’s ever owned, a gift from one of her children. I help her. She has a slight ambiguous accent. She scribbles in the margins of a newspaper as she listens to her CD, then spills her coffee. As she cleans up, we talk. She is learning Spanish on CD. She is on her way to babysit for a sibling in Montreal. She loves to read and recalls secretly reading many of the books on the Catholic Church’s banned books list, though she could never understand why those books (for example, Moliere’s plays) were bad. Was she boring me? No no, we have a bit of a train ride ahead of us.

Girls don’t do math

So she begins to tell me stories from her childhood in the ’50s to the time of her father’s death. She tells me about how girls and boys took separate math classes – the boys would learn the fundamentals and be encouraged to pursue science and engineering, while the girls simply practiced calligraphy and were told that when they helped their husbands or bosses with their mathematical and scientific studies, their handwriting must be neat and legible. They were told in no uncertain terms that men would not marry a girl who knew math. I tell her about a study I learned of while tutoring elementary school kids. The results showed that paternal approval and encouragement is very closely linked with girls pursuing science and engineering rather than the humanities.

She tells me about the fights she had with her father when she wanted to go to college. He disapproved, insisting that all she needed to learn was how to “clean house and use a mop.” So Lisa didn’t get to go to college. But she decides, at 16, to leave home (Montreal) for Toronto and move in with a girlfriend with similar ideas. Being French-speaking, she starts to learn English on the side while attending typing school. I don’t know much about jobs available to women in the ’50s, but according to her, it was a good job for a woman at the time.

In Toronto, she sees girls dating casually, promiscuously, and she has retained enough of her traditional upbringing to disapprove. She marries early at 17 and gives birth to a daughter, who is now in Africa living with tribal peoples, and a son, who has his own children now. Since she loves to read, she buys them books, something that their parents do not do. This year, she is bringing them Harry Potter.

A Pynchonian episode

Her husband often travelled for work, and one year, she flies with him to Italy, where they check into a hotel with his colleagues. That night, he leaves for a dinner she does not want to attend, and she stays in the room to read. After about an hour, someone knocks and she sees through the spyhole that it’s one of her husband’s colleagues. He is full of smiles and compliments, but something about the things he says and the way he acts alarms her, so when he asks her to let him in, she refuses, claiming to be tired.

He tries the door. He continues to try the door. Now she is sure he is up to no good, so she throws the dead bolt and moves a dresser in front of the door to block it. He is still jiggling the door knob and oozing persuasion. Not sure what to do, she pulls out her suitcase, strips down and puts on every article of clothing she has packed – a jacket over layers of sweaters on top of dresses on top of 5 layers of underwear and pantyhose. He ceases eventually, leaving with a curse, but she sits up the entire evening, nervy and afraid. When her husband returns, she is still dressed as Oedipa Maas. She tells him what happened, but he simply looks at her strangely, saying nothing. She removes all her extraneous layers and they never speak of it again, not that night, not in the morning, not ever.

The Void

Years later, they divorce, and she is happier single. She loves to travel, though she has never been in the US: “I’ve always meant to; it’s just so big!” Traveling alone is much more comfortable for her. She joins a social group for “second-time singles” and finds herself attracted to Asian and Southeast Asian engineer types. One night, one of these engineers is driving her home on the highway when he suddenly passes out in a narcoleptic fit and remains unresponsive to her shakes and screams. She grabs the wheel and tries to get her foot on the brake. The car weaves all over the road. She is crying hysterically.

“My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I had a near death experience. There was nothing. You know how people see a light at the end of the tunnel? Well, I looked and saw nothing. There was a blank, dark void. I knew for certain that there was no afterlife. Death is the end.”

Luckily, there is no one else on the road, and the front seat is a bench seat rather than two separate bucket seats. Eventually, the car comes to a stop and so does that relationship.

She is not religious, but when I tell her I study biology, she expresses doubts about Darwinian evolution and asks for my opinion. I try to explain, but her conceptions are stubbornly colored by Social Darwinism. I’d just finished reading Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch, so I recommend it and she writes it down on her scribbled-over newspaper. I hope she read the book, that the title wasn’t forgotten in that sea of scribble and recycled. I should have asked for her address and sent her my copy, not the least because the year that we spoke, a fire at her house burned down her entire book collection.


That was also the year her father died. On his deathbed in the hospital, he tells her a simple “I’m sorry.” She takes it to mean that he regretted the things he said to her, regretted not putting her through college. “Even though he will always act as a traditionalist and expect the same things from my mother, I think over the years he realized how that way of thinking could be wrong. That was a big admission for him. At the time I was still too angry and bitter to forgive him, but I thought about it afterward and I accept it. I can’t expect anything else from him.”

In the next weeks, she and her siblings will have to divvy up the inheritance and, her mother having already passed away, figure out what to do with their houseful of possessions.

So that is the story of Lisa, who loves books and has seen the void. I don’t think about her often, but when I do remember, I’m amazed by how much she told me, and wish I had been serious about photography back then. Instead, I’ll have to settle for the verbal record.

I may have confused some of the facts with the story of a woman I met on Greyhound who was going to a family reunion in Cleveland, but I believe this is essentially Lisa’s story. Ironically, if my notes had been more legible, I would be more certain.


~ by Jin on January 21, 2009.

2 Responses to “strangers on a train”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to type up this story Jin. I’m curious about your mention of notes. Do you normally take notes on this type of interaction?

  2. I’m terrible at remembering details if I don’t write it down, so usually I carry a notebook when I travel. I didn’t make notes while we were talking but afterwards, I scribbled like a madwoman trying to remember it all. I don’t record every interaction, but this one was pretty exceptional! I kept meaning to write out a journal of the whole trip, but I got lazy…

    It does make me want to approach more older people and hear their stories. But I think she might’ve told me all of that precisely because she’d never see me again.

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