Three train tales

Shahar Madjar, MD

A good train-ride story is always a tale of transformation. A passenger may find comfort in the pre-determined course, the well-grounded tracks, the rumbling sound and the monotonous vibration. He may open a conversation with a fellow passenger, or just fall asleep. “It feels as if I have escaped time and place,” he may tell himself, for every moment is passing as the scenery he sees through the windows, and as he moves through time, he is neither here anymore, nor yet there. Yet, in a good train-ride story, the protagonist arriving at his destination is a man changed forever.

Here are three train-ride tales that will prove my point.

The first story is autobiographical: When I was about 10, my mother took me on a train ride from Haifa to Tel Aviv – a two-hour long journey. We were on our way to a wedding. My father, who worked in Tel Aviv at the time, was supposed to meet us at the wedding. I wore a new white shirt and dark dress pants, fancy shoes, and a blue tie – “After all,” my mother told me, “it isn’t every day that your cousin gets married.”

About halfway through the ride, I had an attack of extreme hunger. My mother protested: “Shahar,” she said, “we are going to a wedding, there will be a lot of food there.” But she ultimately obliged, sending me to the restaurant-car to get “something small to eat.”

I bought a large hotdog. It was accompanied with a squeezable plastic bottle with a pointed tip and a label that read ‘Mustard’. I squeezed ‘Mustard’ but nothing came out, so I squeezed harder. I heard a loud pufffff as a small clot of mustard that was stuck at the tip of the bottle suddenly dislodged. Then, I could feel the intense smell of mustard and when I looked down, I saw mustard everywhere: on my new white shirt and dark pants, my shoes and my tie, and, it seemed, everywhere else in the restaurant-car. I left the hotdog on the table, and returned, hungry and yellow, to the cabin where my mother was waiting.

I could tell that my mother was devastated. She even cried, a little. She told me: “I told you…” Then she pulled out her Emergency Plans, found a department store on the way to the wedding, and bought a new set of clothes. We arrived late to the wedding: desserts had already been served and eaten, and my cousin looked exhausted from the ceremony and the dancing that followed.

My father was worried about our late arrival, but when he heard the mustard story he started to laugh, and then he laughed a little more and kept laughing until my mother and I started to laugh along with him.

Why is this a train-tale of transformation? Because since that Mustard Day on the train, I always search for humor in life’s daily predicaments. When it works, I am relieved; when it doesn’t – well, at least I tried.

The second story, On account of a Hat, was written by Sholem Aleichem, who many consider the Jewish Mark Twain. Here is a summary: Sholem Shachnah (his fellow villagers called him Rattlebrain), an absent-minded, almost successful real estate broker, was on his way home for Passover. It was dark. He was tired after two sleepless nights. And still, he had to spend a full night waiting at the station for the train.

The only spot available was a narrow space on a bench beside an official who was dressed in a uniform decorated with multiple buttons, and a military cap with a red band and a visor. ‘Buttons’, as Sholem nicknamed the man, was lying down on the bench “stretched out and snoring away to beat the band.” Should Sholem – a Jew in Eastern Europe, in the 19th century – dare sit next to Buttons, a gentile in a position of power and possibly an antisemite?

Sholem sat down at the corner of the bench and before long, fell asleep. When he woke up, still half-asleep and confused, and in a hurry for he thought he would miss the train, he reached for his hat under the bench. Instead of his own hat, he picked up Buttons’ hat with the red band and the visor.

The ticket window was jammed, but the crowd saw the hat and made way for Sholem. The ticket agent at the window asked: ‘Where to, your excellency?’ And when Sholem tried to board the crowded third-class car, the conductor with the lantern called “this way, your Excellency!” and directed him into the first-class carriage. The conductor then saluted, and backed away, bowing.

Finally alone, in the first-class carriage, Sholem was wondering: First class? Salute? Your Excellency? Perhaps I am dreaming? When he glanced at his reflection in the mirror on the wall, he saw not himself but the official wearing the hat with the red band and the visor. Shaken, he ran out of the carriage toward the bench on which he thought he was still sleeping to wake himself up so he wouldn’t miss the train. At that moment, the train left the station. Sholem found himself alone on the platform. He missed the train.

When Sholem eventually arrived at his village, late for Passover, of course, everyone “pointed him out in the streets and held their sides, laughing.” Even the children trooped after him, shouting, “Your Excellency! Your excellent Excellency! Your most excellent Excellency!”

‘On account of a Hat is not just a train-tale of transformation. As all good stories of mistaken identity, it leads the reader to question: what if I were to be a different person? Those who can imagine a different life for themselves, can, at times, change their life for the better.

The third train-ride tale is about a Presidential journey that had to be halted because of a medical emergency. I shall return.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working in several locations in the Upper Peninsula. Contact him at or at