The Cost of Silence

by

06/21/2003

B48 bus and subway

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

My mass transit had misplaced its insanity.

The B48 bus driver obeyed traffic signals. The one-legged beggar banking on his one-leggedness vanished. Even the angry accordion player took a sabbatical. My chunky-monkey commute was now old-fashioned vanilla.

But vanilla was what I craved. It was another day answering phones for a tri-monikered firm. The job was painless when the company was monosyllabic. With ten syllables, though, I ended each day exhausted.

I hopped onto a homebound train and slumped into an orange-and-brown seat. A cadre of doo-woppers exited the car. Their a cappella Motown drifted away, and silence settled in. Silence, though, is temporary in the city.

Tarnished brown with bent keys, the saxophone looked as dreadful as its owner. He was an African-American man in his 40s with unwashed hair and a thick beard. The clothes were ratty, Army-issue green. However, he had a saxophone. A saxophone moving toward his lips.

“PHHWWWEEEE!” went the saxophone.

Ouch went my ears.

Perhaps he was tuning up for some Coltrane or Miles. I am an optimist. I believe in possibilities. But after thirty seconds of PHWEEEEE, my optimism curdled into pessimism.

This man was not Coltrane’s reincarnation. Or even Coltrane’s barber.

Passengers were silently disconcerted. A businessman clutched his Times tighter. Ms. Beehive rummaged through her groceries. I shut my eyes, hoping Mr. Saxophone would magically vamoose.

Five minutes later the magic had failed. PHWEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. I am a short man with anemic arms and a glass jaw. I have not fought since ninth grade. Still, as PHWEE droned on I flexed my mitts, pondering shoving a saxophone down a full-grown man’s throat.

It never came to gullet stretching. A few moments before a visibly concerted construction worker boiled over, Mr. Saxophone stopped. He brandished a fast-food cup.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “if you could spare any change I will go away. I will never play the saxophone again.”

What? Did I hear his reverse-psychology correctly?

“Attention, your donations will make me go far, far away.”

He punctuated his plea with a PHWEE. Then another. And another. He swung his cup around, holding the saxophone to his mouth and daring anyone to not make him play. A few kids coughed up quarters, and a red-suited woman slipped him a dollar.

When Mr. Saxophone visited me I chuckled. I chucked a quarter into his cup. Twenty-five cents for silence? In this city, I know a deal when I see one.

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