Yesterday I was on the A train somewhere on the Upper West Side returning from a memorial day picnic with my lovely wife Danusia when a guy got on the train and started asking for money. He was a thin black man, looked to be in his 40’s, not badly dressed but he did have very bad teeth, what was left of them.
He started his pitch; I didn’t really listen to him as I’ve heard it a thousand times before. I decided to give him a dollar when he reached where we were sitting, and I took one out of my wallet and held it folded up in my hand. I didn’t want him breaking his neck trying to get at that dollar in a hurry.
Then I started to listen to what he was saying.
“Of course I’m hungry,
Of course I’m out of work,
Of course I’m a victim of capitalism…”
When I heard that, I decided against giving him the dollar and slipped it into my pocket surreptitiously. He hadn’t seen it, so he wouldn’t have to wonder what changed my mind.
I could say I am a victim of capitalism too, but I get up every morning and get dressed and go to work for a person who couldn’t care less about who or what I am as long as I do my job, and I don’t cry about it.
I learned a long time ago, back when I thought I was a victim of a cruel and unjust society that there are few real victims. I learned that I was a victim only if I thought of myself as one. When I stopped thinking of myself as one, my life got better and more manageable.
Today I was on the M train headed home to Brooklyn, when I got on there was a guy in a wheelchair counting his money. He was a white guy in his forties, and by the look and shape of his mouth I could tell he had tooth problems too. I watched as he pulled bills out of his pocket, smoothed them out on his thigh, turn them all facing the same way and fold them into the wad he already had working. And they weren’t all singles, either. I saw a couple of fives and at least one twenty. This guy had more money in his pocket than I did.
When he was finished, we were just getting on the Williamsburg Bridge. He put the money into his pocket and nodded off in his wheelchair. By the time we reached the Brooklyn side there was a thin line of drool hanging from his slack lower lip. I probably would have given him money if I hadn’t seen any of this; but if I ever see him again I know I won’t.
Years ago, in the 90’s, there was a guy who would get on the train and sing for money. He was a trim, neat black man in his thirties and in the winter he wore a long wool coat with a scarf and on his head he wore one of those worker’s caps that resembles a newsboy cap. He was very dapper indeed and he would introduce himself as “Shelly Rudolph, subway singer.” Then he would sing, mostly madrigals in Italian, sometimes spirituals, sometimes arias. He had a great voice and was very entertaining. When he finished, he would remove his cap and hold it out for donations.
“Give generously!” He would say.
“Remember the name, Shelley Rudolph, subway singer.” I always gave him a dollar if I had it, and it was always a pleasure to hear him sing. I’ve asked folks if they remembered him, or the infamous Lazaro form the L train, a filthy junkie that would roll up his pants leg to show off his blackened, gangrenous leg in an effort to elicit more sympathy. People would recoil from the smell and he would aggressively thrust his hand in people’s face and say: “Come on, man, don’t be cheap!”
I’m pretty sure about what happened to Lazaro, but I often wonder if I’ll ever encounter Shelly Rudolph, subway singer again. It would be a pleasure.