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November 22, 2005

Choosing Their Own Adventure

Last night on the train ride home, a thirty-something woman took the seat beside me. On her lap sat a large plastic folder filled with photographs. My eyes bounced between a course reading that focused on the impersonality of cities and the images in her hands. The woman sorted through them quickly, pausing every so often to scrutinize a face, and after several glances over my papers, I realized that every photograph was of her.

From that point on, I was hooked.

She sifted through what seemed like two or more decades, her face appearing childlike in one picture, tired and older in another. Once one handful was fully viewed, she�d reach inside the disorganized satchel and pull out another pile. Almost all of them were snapshot portraits, with a few wallet sized school photos and the occasional vacation image, her in the middle, flanked by people.

I automatically began to construct the stories that lay behind her disassembled personal album�perhaps a family member had sent her old photographs that had been lying in a box somewhere, or maybe she had just been through a breakup, her partner giving the images back to her instead of throwing them away. Or, maybe she�d had an identical twin that had died or disappeared, the portraits of whom the woman had inherited or, possibly, pulled from her own album for a memorial.

The doors opened at 34th Street and, having settled back into the last paragraph of my reading, I looked up to find the woman gone. I felt an odd emptiness, as if I had been privy to someone else�s memories�all of them constructed by me. People bring weird things onto the subway. Even stranger, however, is how others around them build stories around their props.

Why do you think this woman was carrying a folder full of her own portraits?

Posted by callalillie at November 22, 2005 8:59 AM | City Life , Introspect


What kind of expressions did she have as she looked at the pictures (aside from "scrutiny")? Was she pensive looking? Frowning, smiling, emitting any sounds like breathes or murmurs? Did it change between pictures? What was the quality of the folder? New or old and beat up? Did the pictures look like they were well taken care of? Did she handle them with care? Sounds kind of like what someone might do if a parent died as depressing as that sounds. As an only child my parents had endless bags and shoeboxes of pictures of me and since it was my mother's domain I wound up rediscovering and sifting through them when she died...

Posted by: Kar at November 22, 2005 9:26 AM

I didn't really get to look at her face, as we were sitting really close together and I was trying to be discrete. It was one of those plastic expanding folders and the photos were all just thrown in-- they were very out of order. She looked very pensive but I don't remember her seeming either sad or content...just as though she was reviewing something.

Posted by: corie at November 22, 2005 9:32 AM

I think I've been that person before. Having spent the day at my parents house, having pilfered random photos tucked away in the basement or attic, riding the F train home...and just remembering. A subway ride is a great opportunity for meditation.

Posted by: sandra at November 22, 2005 10:24 AM

Love this story .... It would be the start of a short novel, may be ...

Posted by: Sonia at November 22, 2005 10:24 AM

Maybe she wants to try scrapbooking and was trying to decide which pictures to use.

Posted by: Alyssa at November 22, 2005 10:32 AM

My boss, Jerry Colonna, introduced me to your blog (back when you posted about your pen obsession which I also share) and I've been reading ever since but I've never posted. Did you happen to notice an engagement ring? This may just be a LI thing but I know people sometimes use old photos in their wedding videos - a progressive slideshow of sorts from youth to present day - maybe she was rifling thru looking for photos she deemed acceptable to share with 150-200 people : )

Posted by: Kerri at November 22, 2005 11:06 AM

Maybe she visited her parents' home after a long absence. She walks down the once familiar street, but everything is out of place, smaller than she remembered. As she approaches her childhood residence she feels a warped sense of deja-vu, as though viewing it through a funhouse mirror. Her parents greet her, delighted to see her. The visit is short, she still feels that alienation that sent her on her world travels. She still feels the love she has for family and the old neighborhood. It's time to leave now, but before she does her father hands her a folder. It's plastic, new. Inside are old photos, all of her. He tells her it's time to be your own historian.
We have our photos and we have our memories. She hugs them, clutching the folder. As she walks to the subway she knows another chapter in her life is unfolding.

Posted by: Vickie at November 22, 2005 11:41 AM

In the vein of Kerri's comment, perhaps she was trying to decide which photo to use for a dating website?

Posted by: Ayelet at November 22, 2005 12:19 PM

Geez! How depressing was I? I like all your stories much better.

Posted by: kar at November 22, 2005 12:52 PM

Obviously, this was not the actual woman, but someone attempting to assume the identity of that woman, familiarizing herself with old photos to avoid potential breaches of security. Alien invasion, perhaps?

Posted by: JVG at November 27, 2005 10:44 AM

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