On the way home yesterday evening, I was listening to my walkman and reading print-outs from Baseball Prospectus on the 1 train, when, at 86th street, I heard a commotion. It was coming from my left so I pulled the left earphone away from my ear and I heard a man talking loudly, and sternly. Like many New Yorkers, Iíve grown numb to the pleas of panhandlers (and there are far fewer homeless people on the trains than there was ten, fifteen years ago). Sometimes I listen to their stories and give them some change, sometimes I donít. Iím more inclined to dig into my pockets to the musicians who make their way through the cars.
A middle-aged, dark skinned man stood in the middle of the train. He had a beard, and was missing several teeth. He wore a wool cap and a large sweater, and had a fanny back strapped to his waist. A clear, plastic bag dangled from his right hand. I only caught the tail end of what he was saying, ďÖin the hospital and Iím trying to feed my kids.Ē With him were three children, the youngest of which, couldnít have been older than five or six. The young boy was light-skinned, and looked as if he had been riding the trains all day. He was dressed for the cold and had a knapsack hanging off of his shoulders. In his right hand was a clear plastic bag. The fatheróor was he some kind of Fagan?--was standing in the middle of the subway car and instructed the youngest to come toward my end of the train.
I felt a rush of emotion. I felt angry that this man had his kids out on the train hustling for money. There was another boy, also light-skinned, with round-glasses and a delicate face standing a few feet away from the man. He must have been about twelve. And there was a girl too. She was darker, and big, probably thirteen or fourteen. I wondered what the kids were feeling, if they felt humiliated and shamed. Or if it was just me projecting those feelings onto them.
The girl, leaning against a pole, sank to the floor and sat on her bottom. The man was just a few feet away from her and he pulled an acoustic guitar, strapped around his shoulder, from around his body. He was standing on an angle to me and I hadnít seen it at first. He reached into a bag at his feet and handed the girl a small set of bongo drums. She placed them on the floor, between her crotch and her feet.
The man looked at her, at the teenage boy, nodded, and they began to play. The first thing I heard was the drums. They were loud, and hard to ignore. Though, this being New York, of course many of the passengers didnít seem to notice at all. An old man with a runny nose was sitting across from me, and he rolled his eyes, an agitated look on his face. The girl played the drums very well, at a brisk, up-tempo pace. And they started to sing. The song was familiar but I couldnít place it immediately:
And I wanna sleep with you
in the desert tonight/
with a billion stars all around
Then came the chorus. Damn, if it wasn't "Peaceful, Easy Feeling," by the Eagles. The last time I thought about that song, it was the butt of a joke in "The Big Lebowski." Brian Gunn made me a mix cd recently of cover songs, and he mentioned to me in a note that a good cover song can make you reconsider the lyrics and the emotions of the original. (He made this comment about Elvis Costello's striking live cover version of "Substitute," by The Who.) This is exactly what happened to me last night. First of all, it was a surprising selection of material to hear a black family sing on the subway. Often, singers play familar songs or will go right for the heartstrings with a tune like ďLean on Me.Ē
The irony of this Eagles song was far more subtle and unsettling. They played it at a quick, driving pace, that immediately distinguished it from the laconic original. The father sang, and the teenage boy mouthed the words too, though it didnít look as if any sound was coming out of him. But the girlís voice, resonated throughout the car. Collectively, they sounded urgent, without being rushed. It was filled with pride and even something defiant. More than anything, it was soulful. (Later, I tried to put the proper description to what I heard and the best thing I could come up with was that they were singing the Blues.)
The man looked at girl several times and they communicated with their eyes. I expected to detect something critical in his look, but he smiled instead. A warm, happy expression briefly crossed his face. Meanwhile, the little boy looked as if he could fall asleep standing up. The father stopped signing at one point and directed the child to sit down in an empty seat. But even though he paused for a moment, the sound of voices didnít stop. I didnít realize until a minute later that there was another boy on the other end of the car singing too.
As the train approached 96th street, the man called to the young boy. "David." On cue, the little one stood up and walked through the right section of the car with the bag and collected donations. I didnít know what I was going to do at first. Sending a cute kid through the car is an irresistible ploy. It was such an obvious manipulation that I froze. But I was truly moved, and caught up in the emotion of the music. So I dug into my pocked and then held out my right hand. Several people gave the boy money. When he came to me, I paused before dropping my change into his bag. The expression on his face was blank. I waited until he looked at my eyes. We made contact and reflexively he whispered, ďThank You.Ē His eyes darted away from mine and it was as if he hadn't registered a person at all.
The train pulled into the 96th street station. Quickly, the father gathered up his belongings, and the kids. The little boy was stuck behind several adults who were about to get off too and the older kids called out for him. "Come on, David. David, letís go." The boy made it out in one piece, a gang of new passengers made their way on, and the car was quiet. I was stunned by the power of their rendition. As the doors closed I looked out of the window and saw two police officers talking to the man and the four children. The man was handing the cops his ID but he looked calm. The kids looked on, engaged, as the train pulled out of the station.
I couldnít get the song out of my head last night. Not the Eagles version--which I've never particularly cared for--but the one I heard on the subway. I tried to tell Emily about what had happened but these kinds of stories are too painful for her to hear. But I couldn't shake it. I was up for two hours in the middle of the night, haunted by the yearning of the voices I heard singing:
'cause I gotta peaceful easy feeling/
and I know you won't let me down/
'cause I'm already standing on the
And I found out a long time ago/
what a woman can do to your soul/
Ah, but she can't take you anyway/
You don't already know how to go/
and I gotta peaceful, easy feeling/
and I know you won't let me down/
'cause I'm already standing on the ground
They couldn't have played for more than two minutes. But time slowed down for me, and I won't ever be able to hear that song without thinking of them again.