Saturday, September 26, 2009

Started to feel at home today...

A week into this adventure called living in New York, I've just started to feel like someday I might belong here. I figured out a way to make money (driving a pedicab around the city), found a place to sublet for the first month (friends of friends of friends, one of whom happens to have grown up near my parents' hometown in central Illinois), and got connected to volunteer projects with two different activist groups.

And then there was Richard Williams. After spending the whole day running cross-borough errands and chasing down old friends on either side of this big little island, I was sitting in the subway station waiting for the uptown 1 train at 14th street. I was holding a big stack of vinyl records I had just purchased at a flea market—old Original Broadway Cast albums—and was happy to find a place to rest my tired legs, sitting on one of the wooden benches by the turnstiles.

A second or two after I sat down, an elderly black man approached, with a recently-purchased six pack of Oreo Cookies tucked under one arm of his navy suit coat, and a can of Coca-cola under the other. He was holding a nearly-overflowing handful of coins in one hand, and awkwardly using both hands to try and stuff the coins into his pants pocket.

He settled into the last wooden seat on the row to my left, leaving two empty seats between us. Having successfully arranged his coins and Coke and cookies, he turned over to me and said, “What kind of tunes you got in your hands, son?”

“Old Broadway show tunes,” I replied, a little uneasy about being approached by this unkempt stranger.

“No opera, huh? Only show tunes?”

“Yep,” I replied. “Not many people use these LPs anymore. Not many people even have a record player anymore.”

“Well I do. I have Opera Saturdays,” he smiled wide—his face a well-loved guitar, missing the A, G, and B strings.

“Only Saturdays?”

“Only Saturdays! Laaaaaaaaaa!” he sang in his best soprano. “The neighbors always hear me singing along on the weekends. But Sundays are for Country Western and Rock.”

The conversation paused for a moment, and a sharply dressed brunette sat in one of the two seats between us, unaware that this guy and I were mid-conversation.

“Who's your favorite Country guy?” I asked, leaning out to speak around the curvy businesswoman.

“Excuse me?” she murmured, confused.

“Johnny Cash, no doubt,” the old man shot back, not missing a beat. The brunette went back to her book.

“Cash takes cool to a whole new level, doesn't he?”

“There's one more guy I can't think of, that I really really like. It's on the tip of my tongue...”

As he fought to remember, the train pulled into the station, and he leapt off the bench without a backward glance. I chased after him.

When I took a seat next to him on the train, he slowly turned to look at me and jumped, almost surprised to see me there. He took off his mesh baseball cap, wiped his wizened brow, and mopped a few beads of sweat off his beard. Half the scruffy hairs on his face were black, and the other half, snow white.

He brought an Oreo to his lips, and, lacking incisors, broke the cookie in half and stuck it in the back of his mouth.

I wanted to know more about this man, but was strangely intimidated by him. His soul was too old for me to understand. I felt the same kind of awe that I knew from my time living in Nicaragua, working with orphaned street kids; the kind of awe born from being in the presence of wisdom earned through tribulation.

I searched for a way to continue the conversation: “Do you ever go up to Lincoln Center to hear the live broadcast of the opera out on the plaza?”

“Lawd, yes!” he hollered, his voice spanning about two octaves in as many words, and causing our half of the car to look up. “I go up there all the time.”

“Well I haven't been yet, but I hear it's lovely. I just moved to the city a week ago.”

“Where'd you move from?” he asked.

“Born and raised in Washington, D.C.” I said, proudly.

With a fist clenched around his remaining Oreos, he socked me in the shoulder and said, “Brother, I spent my childhood in D.C., too! Northeast, on M St.”

“Well how about that!”

“Yeah, I've still got a brother down there, who sells real estate. Let me tell you, things is changin' down there. They didn't even have paved sidewalks when I was growing up down there. Only dirt roads everywhere. And prices ain't what they used to be. Things are startin' to get more expensive down there than they are up here! My brother pays over 50 grand a year just on property tax alone. He was tryin' to unload one of his commercial properties down there, and had a Korean fella come offer him $50 million, CASH MONEY, on the spot. But he knew something ain't right when a guy wants to pay you CASH MONEY like that. So he didn't do it. After that, market fell through. He's looking to buy more property now, cause the IRS is takin' everything he's got. Gotta get more property to help bring down the taxes. Plus, he's buying a new Benz every two years, for about $250,000 a piece. It's crazy, man. Crazy.”

“Well things aren't much better up here!” I said. “I'm looking at apartments the size of a closet that cost $1500 a month!”

“Yeah, I got me a one-room about like that. All I need, is that one room.”

We came to the 34th St. station, where I should have hopped off the local 1 train and waited for the express (2 or 3) to take me uptown. But something kept me in my seat.

“So was your whole family from D.C., too?”

“Nah, nah. My parents were teachers down in South Carolina. That's where I was born. My parents had about 450 acres of land they farmed, and they taught in the schools in the 40s and 50s. Built our house out of trees they chopped down on the land. They were too eager to get the house up, and didn't let the wood dry. Built the whole thing out of green wood. By the time it was done drying out, the house was tilted and twisted so bad, you had to cut the doors and windows off at an angle to get 'em to close. Dad left the house to my baby brother, and he wanted to tear the thing down and build fresh. I told him, 'Damn, you must be outta yo' FOOL HEAD, boy! Our mommy and daddy went through hell getting that house built, workin' on two-, maybe three-hundred dollars a month.'

“So me and my brother hired an engineer to come down there and save the house. And let me TELL you, he picked that house straight up in the air, put it on stilts, and left it there for about two weeks. It got all straightened out...they put a new foundation in, and set it back down. Now it's the prettiest damn house you ever did see.

“The state tried to build a penitentiary on our land...wanted to buy it from us. But that's good land...prime real estate. We're right on the highway to Myrtle Beach. So they went and built it right across the street from our house, anyway.”

I did a quick historic time line check in my head, and then asked, “So the schools your parents taught in...Those must have still been segregated schools, right?”

“Of course they were! Son you wouldn't believe what things was like back then. Hate everywhere. And let me tell you just how bad we had it: Our chief of police was also the head of the KKK! They used to march up and down the streets all the time, scaring people.”

I told him about a house I had passed in Kentucky that was flying the KKK flag off the front porch. “I can't believe that hate like that still exists in this country.”

“Are you kiddin' me? In some places down south, you got BLACK people who's in the KKK!”

I was skeptical. “That doesn't make any sense!”

“Some people just got a lot a hate built up inside...even for their own race. Your race has people that hate their own race, too!”

“I guess anything is possible,” I conceded. “But still, I think those folks need therapy.”

“Nah, nah, nah. You know what it really is? It's because they don't have GOD'S LOVE in their lives. They ain't got Jesus Christ to show 'em love.”

I paused before responding. “Well, lots of people call it by lots of different names, but you're right: It all comes down to having love in your life.”

“You cain't LIVE without that! You cain't just live for yourself. You gotta be givin' something back to someone. If you is just livin' for you, you ain't gonna be getting nothin' outta life. And most people are just livin' for themselves these days.”

I agreed with his philosophy of giving back, but told him I was more optimistic about people on the whole. I told him about my bike trip (“You did WHAT? From WHERE to WHERE? Oh, LAWD!”), and most importantly, how many people we met who were there to look out for us in our time of need. “People are willing to help others more often than not,” I argued. “But they need to be given an opportunity to do so. You have to put out the kind of positive energy that shows people opportunities to reflect that positive energy back to you.”

“Maybe so. Maybe so,” he repeated. “So what are you gonna do for a job up here in this city?”

I hesitated. I never know how to answer this kind of question. “Well, I'm a musician and a teacher of sorts.”

“REALLY!?!” He liked that. “What kind of instruments do you play?”

“I play piano, I sing, and I'm learning to play the banjo.”

He socked me in the arm again, kind of hard this time. “Chuck Berry plays the banjo,” he grinned, flashing his toothless smile with uninhibited joy. “I like the banjo. It's a good instrument. It makes you happy to hear it.”

By that time, we were just one stop away from where I had to get off. I seriously considered staying right where I was, and chatting with my new friend until he got off the train, and then riding back. But it was getting late, and I still had lots of work to do before falling asleep.

I dug around in my messenger bag, and pulled out one of the business cards I just recently had printed for theatre work. It has my contact info on one side, and a full-color, glossy print of my head shot on the other. “Here's my info,” I said.

“Well aren't you fancy, Mr. Sparks!” he teased.

I laughed back, “Well, at the moment I'm in the business of selling myself as a professional artist, so I have to look the part, right?”

I realized I had passed the whole train ride without knowing his name. I asked him.

“Richard Williams,” he glowed. The way his named rolled out of his mouth, I felt like he was giving me his most valued possession. He said it with such joy, it was as if he was offering me the last bite of his ice cream sundae.

“Richard Williams,” I repeated, receiving the gift he had given me. “Be in touch, will you?”

1 comment:

Twig - Love Your Home said...

That's an awesome story...I LOVE those moments in life. They are soo worth it. I'm glad you acted on it. Last time I got one of those "soul stirring" moments...I had the feeling I was just supposed to talk to this really old lady at a grocery store. She was just sitting on the bench by herself, and I just went up and sat by her for a good 10 minutes and she was so happy. I LOVE those moments. Miss you!!!

-- Jana