Who was number one? I don’t know. I simply can’t remember. If I were to guess, I would say it was in a Communications class in the top floor of a building in the Mojave Desert. But that’s only a guess. In reality, I have no memory of who portrait number one, ten, one hundred, or one thousand were. I don’t remember people by the number I write on their portrait. I remember them because they were interesting—because their personality is one in one thousand (sometimes literally!). And so today I write about a different portrait number one.
I was travelling from Berlin to Munich. I needed to stop somewhere along the way. My first time in Germany, I had only partly planned my trip. Where to next? I trace my finger on one of the giant maps in the Berlin train station. Kassel…Rodenburg…Ulm…I’ve never heard of any of these cities. Dusseldorf! I’ve heard of that! I decide to stop there. I note down the next departure time. Before long I find a seat on the high-speed train: ICE, Inter-City Express. I get my luggage in order. I settle in, find a seat, pull out a white sheet of paper, two pencils, and get started doing what I always do.
He’s a mellow looking guy, still studying in university. He’s got a black jacket with the zipper only partly fastened. “Are you American?” Yes. I didn’t even need to open my mouth. I don’t know how he can tell so easily. Maybe it’s the drawing strangers part. “Where are you heading to?” Dusseldorf. “Why?” Because it’s the only city I’ve heard of between Berlin and Munich. “Really?” chimed in another passenger. She’s a bit ‘goth.’ She’s been paying attention ever since I started drawing the student. “If you’re only visiting Dusseldorf for that, you really need to visit Köln instead.” “She’s right, you know…” the student adds, “the people in Köln are really nice and down to earth. The people in Dusseldorf on the other hand…” his face wrinkles, “…are too schickimicki.” It means snooty, I learn. “Trust me, if you can only visit one city in Germany, Köln is the best one to visit.” A third rider chimes in.
It’s this third rider who was curious enough, brave enough, crazy enough, to take a look at what I was doing with my hands. I had drawn one, two, all three riders already. Of course, with both hands. We talked about that too. And so, after a few stops, and a lot of questions, she asks if she can have a piece of paper. She asks if she can borrow my two pencils. She gets up and finds a seat facing me. She places the sheet of drawing paper on the small table between us. She holds the pencils tight. She looks up at me, steady. “OK, I’m gonna try this too.” Pencils hit paper. One hand mirrors the other: left right, right left. Her eyebrows knit: this is hard. Just let your left follow your right. Don’t mirror. I advise. She nods. She tries again: left left, right right. It’s faster this time. The wrinkles dissolve from her forehead. “You’re right, this is easier!”
Everybody is watching. She apologizes every so often: “I’m sorry this won’t be as fast as yours!” This one isn’t done in three minutes. But we all look on as slowly, my face comes to be recognizable on the paper, here on the table we share. She holds it up and stares: first at me, then the paper, then me, then the paper. “It’s done!” she exclaims, before snapping a photo. “Here you go! It’s my gift to you, now.” She is so proud. I hold the paper in my hands. It was a good job. She matched my format: I see her signature, the date, and at the top left, something special: a number one. I am portrait number one.
I hope she drew a portrait number two. And I hope by now, she’s had the joy of marking down a one-hundred, five-hundred, or even a one-thousand, on the corner of her portraits too.