The snow is beautiful and magical as it begins to come down in light flakes in the early morning hours of late February. The roads and sidewalks are still manageable, the seagulls playfully carving the air a few blocks away from the Hudson, children throwing snowballs, people out walking their dogs. As the hours pass the snow continues to fall into evening, now heavy. The wind is kicking and blowing right in my face and suddenly, as I carry a full load of laundry down Court St., I slip and fall on my ass, and I’m thinking, all right, so maybe this winter wonderland isn’t quite as romantic as I originally pictured it.
New York is now a blanket of white. These are days when I should probably stay in the house, drink spiked cider, watch Hitchcock movies, but this is my one day off from work and I’m restless. I phone a friend that bought me a dinner a few weeks back and tell her I’m craving sushi, my treat. She asks if I really want to come from Brooklyn into Manhattan on a night like this, but I say, yeah, no problem.
After getting on the subway at Smith and 9th the train makes it two stops to Bergen St. when the voice on the loud speakers which is hardly audible - we all know this voice, the one that, despite millions of dollars in MTA upgrades, still sounds like an eighty-year-old wino with his hands over his mouth yelling through a forty-year-old blow horn. Following this announcement there’s the questioning look and raised eyebrows of all the passengers looking to one another. "What the hell did he just say?" Before anyone has any time to think the doors close and the train continues on.
It turns out there's a power outtage in Manhattan, and now this train is staying in Brooklyn. It’s running on the G line. Suddenly I’m on the platform at Hoyt-Schemerhorn racing towards the map, looking for another route. I take the A-train, briefly whistle some Ellington, and sit in the same spot without moving for about twenty minutes. I’m beyond late at this point. My fellow passengers are starting to huff and puff and in the far corner of the car I can hear the moaning snores of a chalk-legged homeless man from underneath an oversized jacket. Then the wino’s back on the speakers. He seems to have hijacked our conductor.
“The F train is not running due to a tree falling on the tracks at Rockefeller Center.”
All right, I know there’s a snowstorm out there, but I’m trying to picture exactly how a tree has managed to plunge three or four stories through thick concrete. It’s baffling, but then again this is New York. Stranger things have happened. After much confusion, it turns out we’ve all mistaken tree for debris, and suddenly I feel a little more relieved.
Eventually the train proceeds to go one stop and somehow miraculously now the F train is running once again, slowly, but it's plodding along. I can't use my phone underground and an hour later I'm thinking maybe I should just get out and walk from 6th Ave. to 1st Ave. and everyone's a little frustrated and late for whatever engagements we have or pretend to have, and I shouldn’t be up in arms; it’s to be expected in this sort of weather, but their agitation and grumbling is contagious and I find myself cursing under my breath, muttering like an old woman, “This is just ri-diculous. I mean, really.”
We're racing down the mezzanine of the 14th Ave. station like a hoard of suburban soccer moms power-walking and then I get down the stairs and I hear music blasting and echoing against the walls down at the bottom platform. It sounds like a Motown group down there. I follow the music, thinking, wow, amongst this madness the Four-Tops are hanging out giving a little winter concert. But when I get to where the music is coming from all I see is a fat, chubby-faced, raggedly dressed older man sitting on a bench. He’s got his Yankee hat on sideways and has a huge p.a. speaker next to him and a little portable cd player on top of it. My Girl is blaring throughout the tunnel.
I've seen this type of thing before, the whole karaoke deal, or with the fella trying to sing a cappella on the train, but usually it’s just some guy that can't sing at all. The difference this time is that this guy's good, really good. He has a high soul voice, like Sam Cooke, smooth and soulful like Smokey Robinson, and he's singing along with The Temptations, but off the vocals, ad libbing in an Otis Redding gospel style. His lips are pursed to the side, smiling, shaking around, nodding his head with a little wink of the eye, doing a little shimmy shuffle, moving his hips and arms around. A big crowd is forming around him, transfixed.»
Photo by Jazz Guy
Amongst us sits this Laughing Buddha, singing away, having a ball, feeling it. Even the rats along the tracks have stopped to watch. He gets to the last verse of the song in which The Temptations sing "I don't need your money..." but instead he throws in his own words, "That's not true, I need your money, ooh yeah!" In a matter of seconds this man and his music has managed to transform a crowd of frantic subway riders into one filled with beauty and love and laughter and everything that’s great in life, everything that’s magical about New York.
A guy who looks to be in his late twenties next to me takes off his earphones as tears fall from his eyes and down his cheeks.
A girl next to him says, "My god, you're crying,"
He smiles big and wide. "I don't know, it's really beautiful, isn’t it?"
She laughs and places her hand on his shoulder and agrees it truly is and I’m standing there, thinking how quick the human emotion can change, how trivial our idea of time is, but before I can form any deep, profound thoughts the L train comes along, "Next stop 3rd Ave.!"
So we leave our soul man all to himself, still singing his heart away, music blaring above the sounds of trains. The doors close and we're all shaking our heads and a woman with an accent miles away from New York says aloud to whoever's listening, "Gotta’ giv’ it to him. He sho’ do bring a smile to yo’ face." A minute later the laughter subsides, headphones back on, books and newspapers out, eyes close, and a strange, yet familiar silence fills the car.
I get out at 1st Ave., walk up the slushy stairs and now on the streets I’m greeted with the loud sounds of sirens and honking horns and taxi cabs and finally I get to the sushi restaurant over on 18th St. My friend's back at a booth completely complacent and sipping on some martini with a fancy name and some weird fruit inside of it that looks like a yellow slug, so of course, I order one too and then tell her, "I know I'm late, but I swear, I got a good story for you."
Seth Swaaley currently lives in Brooklyn. He writes a column for Razorcake magazine and more of his writing can be found at www.talesfromthetunnelny.blogspot.com.