Train Catalogue #14

Something was odd this afternoon on the line I rarely take, an express that just isn’t situated right, route-wise, for me to bother with, even though it hits my stop. But schedules had gone screwy, as they sometimes do, and so I hopped on the rush-hours-only train after work. Unbelievably, I had my pick of seats, sharing the carriage for a while with all of maybe seven other people and a conductor who gave a live heads-up of station names, instead of letting the standard pre-recorded announcements chug along in their salesmanlike cheer. The lack of a crowd combined with the presence of a live human voice to form something like an atmosphere of calm beauty in the old car, and for a time, I was left feeling more relaxed about the world than has been the case in a very long time.

The sense began to erode, though, as I noticed that I was the only person in the compartment not entranced by a smartphone in hand. The realization came right after looking up from an article I was reading in The New Yorker, whose paragraph ended by describing actress Geraldine Page’s “illustrating the psychic disturbances and the hidden joys of being human, of feeling strange in a strange land.”* Admittedly, there wasn’t much drama going on in that car, and it’s not as if that final phrase was original enough to jolt me into a revelatory space– but I began to move from feeling a subtle joy in a peaceful moment on a public vehicle to being reminded that I can’t seem to get down in some fundamental ways with the time I’ve been destined to inhabit. Although being surrounded by mobile-captivated zombies has become so habitual I hardly notice it half the time, I’m still brought up short every now and then by what feels like walking among a population that operates according to cultural rules that are in some essential, unchangeable fashion foreign to the basic assumptions that guide my life.

"Look up, speak nicely, and don't twiddle your fingers all the time." John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland illustrations, on Wikimedia Commons.

“Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.” John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations, on Wikimedia Commons.

But that semi-regularly recurring reminder is also not necessarily a disheartening, nor even a lonely one; rather, it’s urging me, as it usually does, to go back to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, and to find solace in the eras- and generations-spanning fellowship of thinkers and actors who’ve never really been able to inhabit any place or time comfortably, because it’s just not in their nature to accept the way things or people are; because for them, the “is” will never be good or worthy enough as long as there’s an “ought” being ignored or suppressed. I’m guessing that a good many of my contemporary compatriots are getting 1) at least a glimpse right now of what it might feel like to be, or be thought of as, strangers in their own, newly strange, land; and 2) of just how many “oughts” are pending out there, awaiting our responses. Maybe it’ll mean more people will start to look up and around, and at the very least, to think a bit more about who and how they are among others, and the duties and expectations that come with such a knowledge. It’s a fragile hope, and only a meager beginning, but a hope all the same.


Hilton Als, “Paging Geraldine,” in The New Yorker, 13 & 20 February 2017, 23.


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