My cellphone flashes blue and white: Instagram. “Press ‘allow’ to see this message,” the app says. My thumb hovers over the button. I think it over. I’m skeptical when I receive a photo from a stranger without any text. Sometimes ‘hot Russian women looking for love’ send photos to strangers. I don’t need to see that. Tonight though, I press ‘allow.’
“Found one of your portraits on a train,” the caption to the photo reads. “I’ve fallen in love with it since then.” The photo shows a Mac computer screen in warm indoor lighting. There’s a portrait lying on the computer: it’s one of mine.
I’m glad I write serial numbers on these things. This portrait has the digits 9-6-2-0 written on its right-hand side. I open my Google Drive, open a folder called ’10000 Smiles,’ and start looking. June: 9428. 9466. Too early. Wrong month. July: 9564. 9620. Bingo.
This was on a train. I see the DeutscheBahn patterned blue upholstery in the side of the picture. There’s a colored bag and a few brown toes of a man showing from a corner of the photo. He’s number 9620. Who is he? Where was this? I flick to pictures a few over in my Drive: 9619, 9618, 9617…a family. The kid brother and teenage daughter had Christopher Streets Day wristbands. I remember them. The brother was shy, the mom talkative. This was July 20th: a day I travelled 560 kilometers over 7 hours with 8 train connections. So 9620 was on a short regional connection. It wasn’t my first that day. It wasn’t my last.
My phone blinks again. “Found it some weeks ago and love it,” the stranger types in another message. “I’m gonna frame it.” It’s not his. Somehow this portrait got separated from its owner, got lost on a train, and travelled to some tiny town with 15,000 residents, named Lohr am Main. Then this Instagrammer messaging me picks it up. He sees a sketch of a stranger just lying on a train. He keeps it. Two months later he snaps a photo of his find, and sends this pic to the Instagram of another stranger: me.
Why would he frame this? Isn’t this crazy?
I usually think of these portraits I draw as being between the subject and myself. But they’re not. This guy is a stranger neither the subject nor I know. Yet somehow this portrait of a stranger affected him enough to keep it. Then to want to tell me about it. Then to someday (he says) frame it. Isn’t this crazy?
I never know what happens to the pictures I draw. I’ve drawn a lot. Some tell me they’ve framed theirs; others tell me theirs end up on desks; taped to walls; in folders for memories; in closets. Two I’ve seen torn to pieces in front of me. I don’t understand why. One I saw bitten into. That was a crazy teen dressed as a nun trying to be funny. I know what happened to a few. For thousands I never will. But for this one, just tonight I learned the adventures it’s been on.