Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 23. (May 10) The man on the train

QA 23. (May 10) The man on the train

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On May 9, 2010
  • strange encounters, train, trickster

Friday afternoon I board a train at False Bay. The carriage is quite full and a man gestures me to the empty seat beside him. I smile and shake my head. I’m happy to stand. “Why? Tell me why?” It’s almost a demand. I shrug, “I’ve been sitting all day and my bum is sore.” He cocks his head like a small bird, taking my measure. I return the favour. A small coloured man in his 60s, stubbly, toothless, wearing a crumpled corduroy jacket and a knit cap. He could be a drunk, but his eyes are bright in a face as mobile and sly as a child’s.

He pulls half a peeled orange from his pocket, its pith ratty with lint, and holds it up to me. There are tuts and murmurs from the other passengers, most of them women. I smile. Something’s starting and I don’t know what. I meet his eyes, half laughing, anteing in. He rubs his grubby hands on the fruit, as if washing it. The audience mutters and clucks. He breaks the fruit in two, considers them, then gallantly offers one to me, half rising from his seat. I take it and hold it in my hand. As the women cry out in disgust, he puts his half in his mouth, eyes steady on mine. It’s my turn. And there is no way I’m eating this thing.

He sets into pleading with me. Please, my lady, please, I am begging you, oh won’t you, oh my lady, please! I shake my head no. I think of appealing to the women – what must I do with this man? – but they’re busy not getting involved. Now he’s on his feet, capering and gesturing. I start to lose patience. I’ll only ask you once more, he whines. I say that would be good. So he sits himself down and pulls out a pack of cigarettes (more gasps from the chorus). He takes one and starts rolling it smoothly across his fingers. Sleight of hand. Then he’s off to the end of the carriage, teetering and tottering as the train sways, everyone scared he’s going to land on them but he never does. The next station is mine. I get off, not looking back. A bit ruefully, I drop the orange in a rubbish bin. After all, it was a gift. And it is my birthday.

Can we ever be sure who stands before us? In ancient Greece, a stranger was welcomed with finest hospitality because it might be a god in disguise. Scripture suggests the same: refuse the stranger and you refuse Christ. Or sometimes you might look in a stranger’s eyes and find Trickster laughing back, sacred clown and magician, beckoning to you from a threshold between the worlds. So should I have eaten the offered fruit? I wonder. All the stories tell us that terrible things happen to those who do. But if they hadn’t, would there even be stories at all?



Helen K
Maybe Trainman/Christ was actually offering you food for thought? What to get a philosopher on her birthday, hmmm.
I react emotionally, as usual. Why not eat the fruit - what is the worst "germ" it contains? Possibly good anitbodies!! Being the rescuer that I am I would have eaten the fruit in solidarity - is this he and me, versus the tutting "others"?
Lisa Griggs
Beautiful Helen. And Happy Birthday!!
The woman on the train It’s Thursday afternoon. I board the train at Claremont. Somewhere along the way a women gets on. She is coloured with dreadlocks, well dressed. A façade. She is very dark. She has a Xhosa father or mother, I forget which parent, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she never fitted in with either Coloured or Xhosa communities. She is out of synch, not right. Mentally unstable. Perhaps a hobo in good clothing although she has money. We know the signs. The train is packed – rush hour, going home. She sits next to me. Doesn’t like that seat – she is squinting with too much sun in her eyes, moves to the other side of me. The sun still in her eyes. Bright eyes. Suddenly she shouts at the Coloured couple opposite us. Good looking both of them, talking to each other. She says they are laughing at her. I tell her to talk to me. The couple look at her dismissively. They are laughing at her now. She gets aggressive. Shouts at them. Stands up and takes two steps to the couple’s side of the train, takes out a self-defence spray and threatens them. She is up for any fight. I think she has been fighting for a long time. The smart Coloured man retorts angrily, stirring her up. A white man sitting on my side of the carriage, makes some loud and angry remark stirring her up more. The whole train is watching. It’s explosive. I am so angry with the people on the train. Can’t they tell that she is out of control, that she will hurt some-one, and they will blame her. Somehow I get her to come back and sit next to me. I ask her to tell me about herself. She says she has had enough psychology, instead I should tell her about myself. So I do. I start with my trip to Cape Town, and ramble on and on, chatty. She says that’s enough about you, and starts telling me her story. I listen. I don’t remember much – just that her husband is a gangster and she walks alone at night and no-one hassles her because they are scared of her and her husband. She is going to Simonstown. We chatted all the way to Kalk Bay where I got off. The train emptier but still with the stupid white man. She doesn’t look at me as I leave or as the train lurches off. I am forgotten. She stays with me though, and the stupidity of the people on the train who would rather be right than wise, and score points off a deranged women than appease her, perhaps with violent consequences. Clearly she should not be catching trains by herself. I am angry too, with this country that has such little support for those who don’t fit in, except perhaps incarceration in jail where further unmentionable atrocities happen to those who don’t fit in. I am angry too that our New South Africa, our rainbow nation, is raising too many people who don’t and never will fit in and then we complain about the consequences as we raise our own walls higher.
    Thanks, Liane. With apologies to Simon & Garfunkle: "something tells me it's all happeniing on the trains. I do believe it, I do believe it's true". Anyone else?

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