It is December, 2003 and I just got off the C train at 53rd and 5th, when I see his arms flailing above the thousands of people ascending the stairs.
“Ban people not cigarettes,” he yells as two police officers standing off to the side with machine guns discreetly move their rifles in the voice’s direction. He stands immobile on the stairs lecturing everyone coming in the opposite direction. The police officers smile, believing he is only crazy and not a danger.
People close to him move away to avoid brushing against his layers of discarded shirts and sweaters. His red elf’s hat jumps skyward as he begins singing, his huge bulk moving in sync with the song.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay ’round about
Deep and crisp and even
The words disintegrate into random sounds; the melody becoming a one-note drone transforming Good King Wenceslas into “Ban people not cigarettes.” His words echo off walls covered with graffiti and follow me into the subway car.
My last visit to New York was in 2001 when posters of the missing covered these walls. Now only a few remnants remain, unlike the enduring memories. I am engulfed by the odor of damp wool carried by heated air wafting from people escaping the cold winter rain. I begin jotting notes so I will not forget the image of the demented singer when I realize someone is intently watching me.
“Should I know you?” a young woman asks.
“Maybe someday,” I say.
Across the aisle, a man in this thirties has sound buds pushed deep into his ears, masking the screech of wheels on time-worn tracks. He plays bass on his crutch and I imagine Coltrane’s sax blaring My Favorite Things in his ears. His right hand plucks phantom strings as his left forms cords on the crutch. The frenetic movement of his fingers becomes steadier; more appropriate for playing backup to Coltrane’s version of the Christmas classic. As we approach the next stop, the sideman plucks less intensely, the bass morphs back into a crutch and the exhausted wanta-be musician limps out at the Lincoln Center subway stop.
I get off under Grand Central Station; only a short walk to the S Train through a maze of cross tunnels. Crowds gently move me forward and in the spirit of Christmas, apologize when we touch. A familiar tune emanates from an obscured corner of the subway. At a side passage, a balding man in his forties leans against the soot-spackled wall, puffing out sweet notes on a concealed instrument.
He is alone in the long corridor. His sleeveless wool vest providing warmth, yet enough freedom to play his instrument-a plastic child’s flutophone. A white threadbare shirt peeks through the holes in his vest, and his pants—still holding crisp front creases—is bunched around his waist and held up with a belt whose end dangles six inches below the clasp. On the gum-plastered floor is a neatly folded summer jacket and in front of it, a small cardboard box that should be filled with bills this time of year, but is empty.
I stop, captivated by Silent Night, then Dradel, Dradel, Dradel, and finally Danny Boy played on a distant memory of an instrument forced upon me by my fourth grade teacher. Ignoring me, he looks into the box, leans back against the wall, and closes his eyes. After a few deep breaths, he plays the opening to Mozart’s Sonata in C. Rapidly ascending and descending notes reverberate off tile walls, bathing the corridor with honeyed sounds, but still, no one comes to listen. Those rushing past the tunnel opening continue on, some stopping when a rap singer screams rhymes about oppression. I move towards the flautist and drop a ten-dollar bill into the empty box.
Sounds flow from the child’s toy for thirty minutes as if Mozart has taken over the musician’s soul. I reluctantly leave, already an hour late for an appointment as tears of joy flow from his eyes. Not a terribly bad way to begin the holiday season.