I met a man with shit-stained pants on the subway and we sang together. He had been swaying by his pile of plastic bags for half an hour, offering speeches to the cabin. People ignored him and looked away. Only the Hispanic man behind us covered his face with split fingers and laughed into his hand. When at last a voice spoke, mysteriously, smoothly, over some unseen PA – good afternoon folks, sorry to disturb, I am going to be making a little music for you this evening – it startled us, mildly, and the shit-stained man looked over, eagerly, and we all saw a younger man, also black, beautifully groomed with a high-maintenance beard, bending to the floor to switch on his little blaster which filled the train with some R & B groove.
He began to sing, effortlessly, like a bird on a branch who is free. He sang about Her, She’s gonna leave me, I know it, I know my heart is hers. Bending to the instrument again he chose a Michael Jackson groove, Rock with You, with that lovely tripping flute that everybody recognises instantly.
Oh, Michael Jackson. We love you and we were happy to be transported by your music. Your music and the MTA. The shit-stained man left his pole and his pile of bags and ventured up into the cabin, dancing, smoothing his shoulders across the air. He tapped the singer on the shoulder and passed him some coin, “his last dollar” said my friend. Then he instantly, uncrazily, turned away and sashayed back to his post, his literal post, making no demands on the singer and not importuning. The man singing was emboldened to dance around a little. “He’s good,” said the fellow next to me, and I said, “He is! And he’s dancing like that while the train is crazy swaying.” I got up, grabbing a pole, and swung my hips a little, in joy with the music. When the singer came past collecting “anything you have helps, and if you don’t have, I love a smile,” we all dug eagerly into our pockets, you have gave us joy.
The shit-stained man hollered, “Baby! You’re great! You need to get yourself in the studio!” The singer answered, ruefully, “Man. I am in the studio.” “You need an agent.” The man behind me was laughing anew. Tears fell in splinters from behind his outstretched fingers, he gripped his face and wept with the mercy of it. “Oh yes!” he was saying, helplessly, to himself: “He needs you to be his agent, baby!” New Yorkers are aware, I think, of one another’s ludicrises.
The singer returned to his portable blaster, the subway doors still open, and he picked it up and called out thank you and left I thought how he could lose all his profit if someone grabbed the music box and ran away with it. The doors slid shut and we began to move. Left alone to his audience the man in stained pants began to declaim in song. He sang, movingly, God Bless the Child, in a cadence and tune of his own. I joined in, a lovely melody we wove and we were glancing at each other, shyly. I said, “You have a lovely voice.” He said, “I’m 71 years old. I begin to sometimes wonder, what is God’s plan for me.” “Ah,” I said: “that I don’t know.” He said, “My mother always told me when I was little. Boy, God has a special plan in mind for you. But I begin to wonder sometimes, what it is.”
He collected all the crumpled bags at his feet, laboriously, very often missing when he went to grab them by their outstretched necks. At the next station he was gone and another busker came on, young, Mexican, radiant, and silent, a stocky boy wearing a sandwich board with his two stumps of arms held out in front of him, like Jesus on a candle. His sign read, Hi, my name is Felix. I lost both arms in a work accident. God bless you and thank you for any help you can give. The cabin fell silent. All the joy fell away. We are lost in an industrial accident, this fractured world. Soberly people fished in their pockets, to help. Felix’s face was suffused with the grace of joyous living. He came past and I fished shame-faced in my emptied-out purse. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” “Thank you.” His voice was soft and filled with humour. “I just gave all my money to the busker,” I said, uselessly. He smiled at me, and I smiled at him a smile that turned down at the corners and pressed my hand to my heart where it ached, and at the next station he got off and walked away, inside his sandwich board, a human pyramid only one head high. As I watched him disappearing into the mystery of his own devilishly difficult life and its challenges, his form flickered with metal stripes as the train took off, I realised my hand was still pressed to where my heart lives and that, unlike the man in stains, this younger man trapped in his sandwich board “for life, as it were,” as Washington Square has it, has made, is making decisions; he has formulated a plan; he is not waiting for some unseen God to evidence in his life. God, if you’re there, bless the child that gets his own. Make us less helpless (we say, helplessly). Give us this day each the daily breadth to see where we are in this life, where we can get to in this world, and how we can all help each other. Amen.