Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.82.4: Train Stories No. 6, The Ladies of the Rails (Part 3)



Strangers On A Train

Why did I do it!? Well into my thirteenth abstemious year and I light-up like a junkie who just lost his job and his girl. Why!? I knew if I had just one, just ONE, the monkey would be back on my back like Joe Camel’s hump. Damn . . .damn . . . DAMN fool! I scolded myself as I crumpled the pack, knowing I’d just go out and buy another one. DAMN!!!

What I crumpled was the paperback on my nightstand. Thank God it was just that cig-regrette nightmare. Fortunately, the awake Jim has more power of self-restraint that the “in my dreams” Jim.

But I know why the dream state Jim surrendered to temptation: it was the train to Dun Laoghaire dream again, the dream that synaptically links—for me—riding trains and smoking cigarettes. That dream is a haunting reminder of years of failed attempts to kick the vexing habit of pleasure and peril. It is also a reminder that deep in the subconscious there lurk memories of satisfying deep drags, of the little white friends who celebrated with me why I was up, consoled me when I was down, and were there for me even when nobody else was. It was my subconscious reminding me that something was missing from conversation over cappuccino, the interlude between dinner courses, and, how could one forget, aprés lovemaking. It was my subconscious telling me I was having cig-regrettes. It was my subconscious offering me a fantasy in which the Surgeon General announces: “Oops, we made a mistake. New research says ciggies pose absolutely no threat to your health.” If that fantasy came true I’d rush out an buy a carton even if the sin taxes on it are more than my house payment.

I worry that I might find some noble excuse to take up the habit again. Like I fear becoming one of those whining health bigots, coughing and kvetching if anybody lights up in their zip code, or refusing to sleep in a hotel room that was once smoked in. Who wants to live longer if everybody you know shuns you like an insurance agent with hyper-flatulence? What’s the use of good physical health if your social life is sick? If it turns out that prolonged abstention from smoking causes self-righteousness and hypocrisy in laboratory rats I’m in for a big cig-regrette.

Then there is that mnemonic association of my smoking days with a time of innocence, a lost time before so many pleasurable things became unhealthful, when all smoking might do is “stunt your growth.” This is the cig-regrette of wistful ignorance. And so memory holds on to, even embellishes pleasant association with cigarettes: puffing along with Bogie and Becall on a summer night at the drive in; sitting around a table half the night with French friends, drinking wine, arguing politics, and filling ashtrays to the brim; sitting back and lighting up after finishing a great book. So many fond associations; every ex-smoker knows what I am talking about. But perhaps my personal favorite is of lighting up to the gentle rocking of the coach car, the rhythmic clacking over the rails, and the slightly-blurred passing landscape.

In the dreams where I am still a smoker one such memory haunts me for reasons I have yet to fathom. Nearly sixteen years ago my wife and teen-age daughters and I were travelling in Ireland. Arriving late on the ferry from Britain we were taking a train from Dublin in the wee hours. We shared our compartment with a plain Irish woman in her early thirties. She was simply dressed in bargain shop clothes that were showing signs of extended wear. She had no wedding band on hands that showed signs of hard work that was maybe cleaning, maybe factory work. She was as tired as we were, smiled a friendly smile, but quietly stared into the middle distance of what was perhaps a private dream of better cicumstances.

I dozed for a few minutes and awoke to find her gone. As I made my way to the rest room there she was, rocking in the space between the cars. In fact, I was going there to sneak a cigarette, since the girls (my wife and two daughters) were on a crusade to get me to quit. As I passed the young woman she was extracting a cigarette from her purse. I quickly pulled out my hidden pack of a far superior brand from my jacket and said, “Would you like one of mine?” She smiled faintly and accepted one. I lit hers and then mine, and our eyes met briefly in that flash of flame and swirl of smoke of a hundred film noir scenes.

She inhaled deeply, arching her head back and relaxed into the lightly drugged state that seemed to ease more weariness that just that day’s exertions. Maybe because of her gaunt features the expression on her face reminded me of Bernini’s “St. Theresa in Ecstasy.” I followed suit, enjoying the unexpressed and slightly illict bond with this “stranger on a train.”

For a while neither of us spoke. Then she broke the silence. “One o’ th’ leetle playshures,” she lilted in a breathy cigarette-rasped brogue. It seemed a reference to a brief moment of narcosis in an otherwise hard and unfulfilled life. We shared perfunctory pleasantries and, concerned that the girls were speculating on my absence, I returned to the compartment. The girl did not and apparently disembarked at the next station, leaving me only that haunting refrain about the “leetle playshures.” I wonder that maybe the only pleasures she has are “leetle” ones.

It still puzzles me that my subconscious seems compelled to drag out that particular snippit of experience for me to review every so often. Maybe it wants me to wonder how that Irish woman is these days, or there is some other, recondite, purpose I’ve yet to figure out. It crossed my mind that Patty was Irish, and she could easily have been that girl had not her grandparents emigrated to New York. There are those who subscribe to the proposition that “everything happens for a reason.” I am not one of them, since I believe that if you cannot explicate the “reason” something happens, the statement is meaningless.

But if I might supply my own “reason” for this recurrent dream it is that maybe my mind just want to remind me that I can still enjoy the pleasure of train travel even though my little white friends can no longer be my traveling companions. My subconscious can continue to allow dream state Jim to share the “leetle playshures” with a stranger on a train rattling through the Irish night; let dream state Jim deal with the health consequences, and awake state Jim perhaps live a day longer to enjoy the “leetle playshure” of writing about it.
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.4.2013)