The soft, grating twang of country music assaults my ears before I see its maker. When I turn the corner, and sound meets sight, I am actually struck by the scene.
He looks the way I imagined he would look, worn jeans, plaid shirt, cowboy hat, vacuous expression—it is not the cowboy that strikes me so, but the figure kneeling before him that makes this usual subway occurrence anomalous.
In front of said cowboy there is a man who kneels upon the well trodden, and filthy, pissed upon, bled upon, spit upon subway floor, disheveled and dirty; his clothing as maculate as the ground beneath him. His face is obscured by the stained and torn park that I imagine he has kept through many a brutal New York City winter.
He is folded in half, chest to knees, forehead pressed cruelly to the ground, arms outstretched before him as if in prayer. Though prayer is not a strong enough a description, no, the man on the ground seems to venerate the cowboy as if he were a manifestation of Christ himself. His arms are stretched so tautly that the strain is visible in his cracked and dry brown hands, spasmodically lifted up and down in worship of his insipid king.
The most shocking part of this scene however, is the constant motion of the people passing by, without a second glance, marching by on their daily commute to their mostly mindless and moronic jobs; thinking of where they are going, where they have just come from, what they will eat for dinner, whom they would most like to sleep with next, rarely present as they expertly weave their way through the underground railroad.
They are oblivious to the cowboy reluctantly singing his silly little heart out for an audience of one, a delusional destitute, ardently appreciative of the cowboy’s crooning about Jesus, God, and love. I loathe country music, yet feel I need to throw some change in the cowboy’s guitar case if only to acknowledge the fascinating scene that has caught my eye.
He tips his hat, calls me miss and thanks me. I would rather give my money to the man on the ground, however he has no visible receptacle for change, and is lucidly lost in hallucination.
Once on the subway, I have barely opened my book, when I hear a soft, effeminate, yet recognizably male-voice address the crowded weekday afternoon subway car.
Ladies and gentleman, I apologize for interrupting your day. I am a student, and an opera singer who has fallen on hard times and been rendered homeless. I would like to sing you a song, and if it pleases you, or you feel compassion in your heart, I would appreciate anything you could give, even a penny would help me during these bleak and desolate times. Thank you.
He is a delicate looking young man, small in stature, olive skin, dark hair, long overdue stubble on his chin, deep set and bottomless dark eyes, old and sad before their time. He opens his mouth and begins to sing. A deep and haunting sound flows warmly from his lips, a foreign, guttural language, (perhaps German?) has never sounded so smooth, or melodic to my ears before. He pours himself into it thoroughly, mellifluously.
All of his enveloping sadness fills up the subway car slowly, steadily like sand in an hourglass timer. He is open, exposed with his flesh and soul hanging out ragged, to be mended, or devoured, ripped to pieces by the tough New York City crowd.
He is lovely in his sadness, his densely beautiful sadness. When he has finished his song, he humbly holds out an old coffee cup to receive what little pourboires he can extract from this indifferent crowd. When he comes to me, I drop a crumpled dollar bill into his cup, and wish him the best of luck, looking sincerely into his eyes.
Next, I am sitting on a bench outside of my favorite East Village coffee shop, smoking a cigarette, drinking a dirty chai latte (the dirty is an added shot of espresso), reading my beloved Henry and June. A rough looking man approaches, unbeknownst to me at first, for I am so engrossed in my book.
He startles me when he gruffly asks for some change. I apologize and refuse at first, since I have already given out money that I do not have to give twice today, and he has not done anything worthy of my generosity. Also my hands are over occupied as it is, also he is wearing a worn, but warm looking coat. I look back down at my book, hoping he will pass me by. He tells me to have some pity for a poor homeless man, tells me that he has to sleep on these streets tonight, tells me that, all homeless men ain’t bad. Coughs. I shiver as I picture sleeping in these cold and hostile November streets.
I look up again at his deplorably twisted face, which warms my heart against my will, against my better judgment. I toss the cigarette, and reach into my pocket once again, to procure my last crumpled dollar of the day. As I hand it to him I tell him that really he aught to dance for this dollar, or perform in some way. He takes it, smiles, and does a sort of sottish looking jig. I am thus amused, and thank him, tell him good day.
I again look down towards my book, eager to return to Paris in the 30s. He evidently has other plans, and asks if he can tell me a story. I very nearly refuse, but then quickly acquiesce when I realize that his story will at the very least amuse me, and at the very best shock and/or amaze me. I tell him yes Sir, please proceed.
He tells me of a night, like this one, but colder, where he is hungry, lonely, and desperate for something, anything, which will alleviate the hunger pains in his stomach. He has hit rock bottom, and is walking the streets with his head down, scouring the streets for the metallic glint of a coin, when he sees something glittering on the ground, near a garbage can. It is too bright, too sparkly to be a coin, yet he is drawn towards it as a moth is to a flame.
He stoops to pick up this curiously glittering treasure. Picks it up, and turns it over in his hand, pondering the purpose of this object that throws off light from the streetlamp. Slowly, traces of memory from his life before the streets begin to form in his head. He knows that this thing in his hand must have belonged to a woman, and can picture it being worn on her jacket, or a hat, though he cannot remember the word for it. The glittering gems look like diamonds, though he does not believe he could be that lucky.
His musings are then shattered by the distinct sound of a woman crying. He looks up to find the source of sad sound, and sees a well-dressed woman frantically pacing the sidewalk, looking at the ground. He looks at the object in his hand with contention. Almost takes it and runs, except that his humanity runs too deep, even after years of living on these streets. He approaches the frantic, crying woman, who at first rebuffs him in her hysteria, screams at him, not now!
It is almost enough to make him exit with his prize, although he still has no idea what it is, or if the glittering stones are really of any value, really diamonds. He holds the object out in front of him, asks the woman if it belongs to her.
She looks up at him with such gratitude, such relief. My broach! She cries taking it from him, and thanking him profusely. So that is what that strange thing is called, and such a strange word for it too, he thinks to himself. There is nothing in the sound of broach that would make one think of such a strange and sparkly object, and there is nothing about the object that would make one call it broach.
He is about to leave, when he hears a conspicuously loud rumble. For a moment he looks up to the sky, before he remembers that it is December in New York, and unless the apocalypse has come early, there could be no chance that the sound he has heard can be thunder. No, no, the pain. How could he have forgotten his hunger?
That broach must have been mighty powerful to eclipse his nightly squirreling for sustenance. He asks the woman for a few dollars to eat. She thanks him, and gives him all of the dollars in her purse. All of them. He turns to leave, but curiosity has gotten the best of him.
“Miss Lady?” Says he. “Those sparkles on that, that broach, are they really real diamonds?”
“Oh yes, they are indeed. Given to me by my great and dear father, who is most recently deceased.”
“Bout’ how much?”
“How much that pin worth?”
“Oh… I. Well I don’t know exactly.” She starts to back away here, so I says to her–“I won’t rob you Miss Lady, I already gotch yer money. I just wanna know how much… so I know I done right by the Lord Jesus Christ when I rest my eyes somewheres tonight.”
“Well, as I said before, I don’t know exactly, but I should imagine at least thirty thousand.”
“Yer shittin me.” Can you believe thirty thousand G’s? He says to me.
“Well. No, I—I’m not lying to you. It was bought long ago, I don’t know how much for then, or how much it’s worth now, well not in money you see, but to me. It’s not about the money, it’s the sentimental value. I… My father you see I… You see, he passed away two years ago today. That’s why I was wearing it. And I… I just couldn’t ever forgive myself for losing it.”
So, I wish her a merry Christmas, and thank her for her dollars, and I rest my eyes in peace that night, for I done right by the Lord Jesus Christ. But what I coulda’ done with thirty thousand G’s? What I coulda’ done with thirty thousand G’s… He is staring off into space now, spending those G’s in his mind as he has doubtless done many times before.
The dog-eared pages of his grown up ‘wish list’ filled with succulent steaks, hussies and hookers, and beer. Oh my! As he turns to leave he says to me. So girlie, like I says before. All homeless men aint’ bad.