The first thing I noticed was the saxophone in his hands. He entered the train with a blast of stifling warmth and I almost sighed aloud at the thought of another entertainer coming to interrupt our subway trip and beg for our money. That was before my eyes travelled to the cast on his arm. It was stained with a light patchy brown which was a far cry from the pink or blue most of us got when we broke a bone as a child. Then he started shouting.
‘Attention everyone!’ his voice was hoarse, an accent I didn’t recognise mixed with a New York twinge. He was from here now, but hadn’t always been.
When I realised he was addressing the train, my eyes travelled downwards, avoiding his eyes which were searching those seated in front of him. I noticed the dirty trousers he was wearing, the holes in the material of his shirt, the once sturdy, now scuffed boots on his feet. For the heat that was permeating the city, the clothes he was wearing looked ridiculous in a melee of shorts and summer dresses. They may have been made bearable by the train’s air conditioning…even more so if they were the only clothes he had.
Not really listening, as you don’t really listen to anyone who does this on a subway train, my brain seemed to click into motion as I wondered if this was his life. Spend three dollars to get into the subway network, then jump from train to train with an old sax and a battered money cup wearing old clothes and a beaten cast? Go home – did he have a home? Go somewhere, eat maybe, try to sleep, and then repeat. He looked middle aged and it hit me that this was probably all he had. I tried not to over-dramatise his life in my head, reminding myself I didn’t actually know any of this, but it was hard when it seemed so credible that this could be his life.
We’d seen subway buskers multiple times before, but not like this. The young male pole dancer, the mariachi band, but they all seemed younger somehow, more cheeky, less desperate. They were people you wanted to give a dollar to rather than needed to give a dollar to.
He seemed almost drunk as he lifted the sax to his mouth, stumbling with the movement of the carriage. And then he seemed to come together, pulled by the invisible string of his music. The sound was beautiful – melodic and sweet, but no one in the carriage relaxed. The music had a harmony of awkwardness that was impossible to ignore.
I couldn’t look at his swaying form any longer. Instead, I looked around me, at my fellow passengers.
They were all looking down.
The woman diagonally across was staring down at her phone, a harsh apathy plastered across her face. To the outsider she didn’t even register that there was other people on the train, no less the man with the sax in front of her. She was either unaware or numb to this.
Next to her was a slightly less evolved New Yorker, his face conflicted, portraying a slight hint of sympathy – but still looking down, unwilling to look at the performing man.
The passenger to his left had closed his eyes, pretending to sleep or else actually asleep. Either way he was uncomfortable with the man’s presence so chose to ignore it, or so used to it that he didn’t even bother to stay awake to watch the commonplace scene of desperation.
I wondered how you could reach this point where your sympathy disappeared. This man was desperate to the point of begging and none of us were even willing to treat him with so much dignity to even look him in the eye. I thought about the dollar bills in my purse. I didn’t need them. He did.
He finished with a shrill, unexpected shriek of his sax, and with that noise the music was gone and the shaken figure returned.
‘God bless you, God bless you,’ he said in his hoarse voice as he walked up and down the carriage with his crushed cup. Nobody looked at him, their eyes fixed on their phones, their laps, their feet.
I almost judged them for having been so desensitised as to ignore such a basic human need.
But I couldn’t judge them. Because I was looking down too.