I sat across from a bum on the D-train the other day. The two seats next to him were vacant because nobody wanted to sit by him. Everytime the train stopped at a station, the morning New Yorkers would rush in to find a seat. They’d rush to the two seats next to The Bum, only to turn away once they noticed him, as if repelled from a magnet. They’d bounce away, contented to stand as the train moved closer to the great paycheck that made everything fine and worth the struggle.
The Bum sat like a statue with far away eyes that most institutional bums possess. He wasn’t trying to see the future, I was sure he’d already been there. Nope, I’m certain he was looking through reality itself. When people scurried away from him and his ripe odor, he weathered the breeze created from their desperate shuffle, never moving.
Then suddenly, as if an alarm clock went off in his belly, he jerked and the look of sudden rememberance came upon his face. He rifled through his duffle bag, finally pulling out a pink, plastic squeeze toy the shape of a pig. The little toy pig fit in the palm of his hand. The pink, plastic, innocent thing looked so clean and fragile. However, The Bum held the toy in his big dirty hand as if it were a child, totally dependent on him. He gazed upon it with an affection so pure that I had to turn away from the scene for a moment. It was his moment and I did not want to soil it. When I finally looked again, he’d set the pig on the empty seat ahead of him, and like a child he pushed the pig along the seat, pretending it was walking. His was talking to the pig very softly. I could not here what he said but his smile and lightened eyes said it all. And the pig showed total trust, confident that it was being taken care of by someone who loved it. When we came to the next stop and more people rushed into the train car, he gently picked up the pig and held it to his chest. Then he discreetly placed the pink toy pig back in his duffle bag – eyes careful, untrusting of all the unrealness around him. When the train began to move again, he resumed the endless stare into that place called Truth.
At 34th Street, The Bum picked up his bag and exited the train. He passed through the boarding hoard of Data Enterers like a ghost. A young man came in and sat where The Bum sat, replacing that tiny beautiful moment where a bum played with his toy pig and both were happy, safe and free. The young man just moved to the beat pumping into his head from his smart phone – in the same seat, but at a totally different location in Spacetime.
Nobody acknowledged The Bum as he walked through the crowd on the platform but he wasn’t asking for attention. He looked to prefer invisibility as he set down his duffle bag and proceeded to rummage through a trash can. He nearly had his head completely inside the oracle of filth as he pulled out newspapers, half-eaten muffins, emptied containers of yogurt. No, he wasn’t asking for an audience. He looked like he didn’t need to ask anybody for anything. In fact, he looked like he’d stopped asking them a long time ago.
That night I walked down Broadway from Midtown to Union Square. Christmas Consumerism was in full swing in the Big Apple. Macy’s famous Christmas windows were illuminated in the night, displaying various tableau of all things Christmas. Elves, reindeer, snowflakes – each window looked like its little electric world of wonder. One window really caught my eye, however, and that was of a dancing Christmas elf holding a gift in each hand. He sported the soulless thin smile of a wooden dummy. He moved up and down on one leg, his hands lifting the gifts up and down. I was stunned with fascination by the mechanical elf and drifted far away from New York as the rush-hour crowd bounced and frowned all around me.
At some point in my stupor, the elf transformed into the mighty Jester at the Court of Fortune. As I watched, The Jester danced, bearing his gifts to some while denying others simply at whim. I stood, dumb, hoping – almost begging – for the Jester to gift me when a hulking day-jobber lumbered into me. I never got a good look at the guy – just saw his overcoat and briefcase swinging in the night. I looked back at the Jester of the Court of Fortune but he was gone. Just that unreal, untrue Christmas elf was there…up and down, up and down.
At Union Square, I saw a young woman begging for change by the subway. She was cute, wore makeup on and her hair was nice. Her clothes were hip and she looked put together. She smiled at people as she pointed to her handmade sign that read:
“Homeless Girl – Need $$$”
I would have taken her picture, but also written on her sign was:
“No Photographs Without My Expressed Consent”
I didn’t know the girl, but she looked to be slumming it. I doubted she was really homeless. Her eyes were clear and gazed upon this world, and they looked to know this world – understood this world. She was still asking, and she was not shamed to ask. She wanted the “$$$” that the Data Enterers slave 8 hours a day for. She wanted the “$$$” that is one’s ticket for a seat in this world. She was not a bum. She knew how to look good. More so, she rememered how to look good, perky – knew how to put herself on display. Her nail polish proved she didn’t have trash can hands. The fingers on her hands could still dial the number to Home, and someone from Home would still answer her call. She had a long way to go before she would need a pink plastic toy pig. But just how far does one have to go before one does?
On Saturday, I talked with an old Black man who’d fallen on hard times.
“I’m 63 years old and I just got outta Riker’s Island. Again. All ‘dem young people in there callin’ me pops and original gangsta’, while I’m sittin’ there wonderin’ how I got there. Again. What did I do to get there. Again. Police said I broke a car window. Wanted me to cop a 2 year deal but thank god my public defender got it down to 90 days. So I’m sittin’ in jail. Again. But I’m old now, see?. And I get upset at those young people in there. They crazy, like they don’t care who they hurtin’. Then I think, when I was young, all the old people thought I’s crazy. So I guess maybe things is the same as they always was. But today, everybody’s livin’ like they’s refugees.”
Later, I walked down 5th Avenue from the Plaza Hotel to Rockefeller Center. If you’ve ever been in that part of New York in December you know that it is packed shoulder to shoulder with Middle Americans who made the Pilgrimage to the Mecca of American Christmas. The buildings were decorated with beautiful Christmas lights. The store windows – such as Bergdorf-Goodman’s – were decked out with immaculate tableau – some were real works of art. However, looking up to see the lights, looking to the side to see the windows, or looking inside yourself to smell the roses could be detrimental to one’s health, because the crowd had become one entity – a throbbing creature – and a body could get trampled if he or she stopped moving their feet.
Thousands of us moved in unison, southward toward Rockefeller Center and it’s giant Christmas tree. After a while, I stopped wanting to do with any of it and desperately wanted out of the scene. But I couldn’t escape. I had to go with the crowd. I was a mindless, rather irritable part of that Throbbing American Creature by the time we made it to the tree. However, when finally in the presence of the giant green electric monolith, the child awoke in me. I was happy to see the big Christmas tree. I remembered how excited I was when I was a kid in Texas on Christmas morning. I would wake up and run to our plastic tree and stare at the presents. I remembered seeing the tree at Rockefeller Center on TV. New York City – and the rest of the world for that matter – seemed so far away. I remembered being a child, carefree and unaware that the world will trample you if you can’t keep up with it. But I didn’t remember any of that for long, because some angry father rammed me with his child’s stroller. So I moved along.
We all moved along and soon we’d ceased to be the Throbbing American Creature and were little individual humans again. We were from all over the country – even South Texas. The cops strung ropes at the crosswalks, corraling us until it was time to cross the street. We didn’t care. We were all very tired, as if we’d all completed ardous journeys from far away lands. Besides, the police knew what was best for us – sending us across this street, across that street. Go over here. Wait over there until further instruction. Halt! Until we tell you where to go. Now, go!
We did as we were told…just like refugees.