A few mornings ago, I got off the D-train at the 42nd Sreet/Bryant Park stop, on my way to work. Upon my approach to the exit, a bum was crawling under the turnstiles. I could smell him from several feet away – the smell of an uncleaned pen in a zoo. His chest scraped against the dirty floor of the station, his chin an inch or two away from the footsteps of other New Yorkers scurrying about, on their way to work, or wherever else a New Yorker might go. But probably to work, because most had that look like they were about to lose their job, and OMG, right before Christmas…how Dickensian. So they scamper, scamper, scamper – jumping into a subway car just as the doors closed. The extra minute earlier that they get to work is gonna show Boss Man they got drive. And Boss Man likes drive.
But the bum didn’t have that look. He didn’t have any look. His eyes weren’t looking into this world. He was looking into that other world, and he and others who know what that world is don’t speak English anymore. They babble out a language only the Invisible People understand. The Invisible People welcome them, don’t turn away from them, don’t turn their nose up at them. As I neared the turnstiles, the bum got up off the floor and collected the colorful pages of a newspaper that he would undoubtedly weave into a coat of many colors under which he will lay to seek warmth. Facing the turnstiles was a women dressed in black and singing gospel songs. A series of pamphlets were spread out before her on a real blanket. She sang, beautifully – old timey songs about Jesus – but not once did she look bum’s way. But he didn’t mind, he wasn’t looking at her either.
After work, I walked The City for a bit, which I do from time to time to clear my head. However, it’s Christmas time, dammit! Walking The City at quittin’ time is not a path along the waters of Enlightenment. I passed through the congested area around Macy’s Department Store on 34th St., a log jam of humanity and bad will. Or maybe not bad will, but no will at all. The shoppers that moved in and out of the giant store with beaten eyes – blank, going through the motions without questioning. That’s what American’s do during Christmas time – they go shopping after work, when it’s crowded, wait in long lines, get angry, push and shove, maybe yell a little at somone who makes $20 less an hour, then resign themselves to a mysterious dissatisfaction of life. Finally, they leave Macy’s, with that vacant stare, bouncing like driftwood off the other robots who aren’t programmed to question tradition. I flow with the fleshy current, amidst the aroma coming off the meat carts and out of manholes. I couldn’t help but feeling the Christmas season came early this year. Then I remembered, it did come early this year. Thanksgiving is just a week away – a week earlier than last year, or all the previous years since we broke bread with those kind and well-behaved savages so many years ago. That’s so wonderful for our poor, gentle, sweet economy, getting that pesky day of thanks out of the way earlier. That means an earlier Black Friday. Those brilliant folks at Wal-Mart are having Black Friday on Thanksgiving Thursday, because why wait? Why not lure the masses tryptophan narcoleptics to shell out their cash on National Thank You Day. Thank you, Wal-Mart, thank you.
Night had fallen by the time I got to Bryant Park. Christmas lights shone like electric candy in the trees. The park becomes something of a winter wonderland during the holiday season. Little wooden booths are set up and in them merchants sell their wares of clothing, jewelry, leather goods, candy, and knick-knacks. A happy little village. In the middle of the park there is an ice skating rink. Many, many people slide in a circle with either a smile or the look of death…depending on how well one can handle a pair of skates in a crowd. Everyone moves in one direction, as if they have to, with no power of their own to stop, or consider going in another direction. They dared not to even question it.
The park is crowded and festive. I noticed a curiosity, however. There were no bums in the park. Bums are just as much of the New York Holiday Institution as the buyers and the sellers. Bums are helpful to the buyers and sellers – to help them remember that Thanksgiving has not yet arrived, to help them remember there’s a heaping load of thankfulness that comes before the Great, Manic End-Of-The-Year Buy Out. And after the Great National Turkey Overdose, the bums are there to help the buyers and sellers remember that Christmas is about a guy who invented the Golden Rule. But then I saw one, then two, then three, then many, many security guards – all wearing neon green coats with SECURITY printed on them – patrolling the Winter Wonderland, and relieving me of the burden of that curiosity. Their job was to make sure the buying and selling carried on without blemish – looked as pure as the driven snow. But there wasn’t any snow to compare it to. It was still too early and warm for snow to stick.
On Sunday I walked through Union Square, which had a Winter Wonderland set up in it, too. More of the same booths were set up – selling trinkets, clothes, chocolate, coffee, clocks, etc. It was occupying the space that Occupy Wall Street used to occupy, after it was banished from Wall Street to Union Square, where the free speech was to be shouted, yet out of ear shot of the Wall Streeters. Now Occupy Wall Street on Union Square was gone and Capitalism flourished in its place under the Sunday sun. Many, many people moved like cattle in a shoot, through the small walkways between the boutiques. People were bundled up in scarves, hats, gloves, enjoying the devine atmosphere. Statues of war heroes, politicians and angels stood in through the park- touting the stature of immortality – over the mortals who only wanted their fair share of life, liberty and happiness, before the Work and Boss Man on Monday. They shell out their cash, buy Stuff in hopes that Sunday may move a little slower.
I left the Winter Wonderland and went to get a look at the statue of Mohandas Gandhi on the edge of the park. I always thought Gandhi’s statue was a little out of place in Union Square, amidst all the figures of Americana and Christianity encased in bronze. But he’s there and he’s captivating, in his little cloth wrap, humble spectacles, on his bare feet, holding his walking stick. He also dons a smile that, to me, clearly conveys a pure understanding that nothing lasts forever, and that that is ok, that nothing on Earth should last forever, and that forever belongs to that other place beyond Earth. That place that can’t be seen for all the Stuff…that only the likes of bums can see. The back end of the Winter Wonderland runs just beside Gandhi’s statue, as if he is shut out of – uninvited to the festivities. At first it looks like a slight, an insult to the non-violent humble leader, until I reassess the whole scene, and see it’s a choice.
I’m invited to wander that Winter Wonderland. I am in a social class that is allowed to occupy its crowded walkways – I’m encouraged to spend, spend, spend. I’m a bona fide College Educated Day Laborer. I can exist in American society, as long as I understand the Dollar. As long as I keep my eyes focused in it’s world, work in it’s world, the sellers will let me buy, and I will be spared from a life of newspaper quilts and Invisible friends.
Sunday night a bum approached me on the subway. I had my guitar with me.
“My young man,” he told me, “practice that thing until it’s the best thing you do.”
I smiled. He didn’t ask me for any money and I didn’t have any on me – there was no money in between us at all. Just before he left me, I told him, “Be well, buddy.”
And he said, “And you keep the faith, young man.”
I have, on more than one occasion, been in a subway car when a bum defecates in his trousers. The other passengers, collectively, squinch their faces and hold their nose. Then everybody joins in the exodus to the next car. But I try to stay in the car. Don’t get me wrong, there shouldn’t be a statue of me for being a selfless humanitarian – most times I get up with the rest of the passengers. But the few times when I have stuck it out with the fellow, when I get to my stop, I walk above ground, into the cold air with a little more levity and peace in my soul. And that makes feel good about myself. Nobody should have to smell like shit alone.