Sunday night I boarded the 11:07 A train to Far Rockaway at 86th Street and Central Park West for my last ride home from work of that week. Monday and Tuesday are my weekend.
It’s good that the 11:07 is the Far Rockaway train; as if we get the house in the Rockaways this will be my train home. The next train, the one that comes at 11:20, just after the yellow garbage train, is a Lefferts Boulevard train, and I would have to wait some more for the next Rockaway train.
At the next stop, 72nd Street, the stinky homeless guy with the trombone in an old cardboard and vinyl case got on, and after taking his trombone out of the case, began to play. I have no idea what he played, because I had my earphones on and was listening to Les McCann’s Compared To What. What I did hear over the music was apropos, as the trombone is a traditional jazz instrument. It didn’t clash, as it would have had I been listening to The Clash.
I’d seen this guy before, and I’ve taken to thinking of him as the “Stinky Guy With Trombone”, as he is obviously homeless and doesn’t change his clothes very often, therefore the stinky smell he exudes as he walks by hand out looking for a tip.
The times I’ve seen him, and I can’t be sure it’s always on a Sunday night; but he’s been wearing the same clothes each time, and I’ve seen him for a few months now. He’s added a down vest now that it’s getting cooler. I wonder how he hangs on to that trombone, which despite it’s falling-apart cardboard and vinyl case is in pretty good shape and sounds fine.
Not the actual Stinky Guy.
When I was in Junior High, I had to take music class. They gave me the trombone because no one else wanted it. The vibration hurt my ears when I played it, so I didn’t like it. So I am full of admiration for anyone who can take that pain, and I feel that for this guy.
Sometimes I give him money, a dollar; which is my standard donation to a homeless person unless I haven’t got any loose dollar bills. Sometimes I look at my iPhone like I’m deciding what song to play next and ignore him.
Sunday I’d gotten a six-dollar tip from a Chinese woman in the building for helping her unload what seemed like $500 worth of Costco groceries from her car. A five and a well- crumpled and worn single. It was a dollar more than my last tip, for loading considerably less stuff onto another tenant’s car. I was ahead by a buck and didn’t want to give it to Stinky Guy With Trombone; but the sight (and smell) of him was so pitiful that I relented. He smiled from beneath his dreadlocks, a smile full of brown rotted teeth but a genuine smile nevertheless, and said thank you. I smiled back and nodded.
I was homeless once myself, many years ago before I decided I liked my comfort and started to learn how to care for myself. I didn’t get as bad as this guy, a friend let me live with him in a big garage in Washington Heights for a while, but if you don’t have a key to someplace or a lease, in my book you are homeless.
I used to get judgmental, looking at the beggars down my nose and wanting to say, “If I can do it, so can you.” But I’ve since learned that it takes some people longer than others to “do it,” and some people for whatever reasons never get to do it at all. They live and die in the street. I’m grateful I don’t have to do so.
One time I was with my wife Danusia and there was a young couple on the J train begging with a baby in tow. You can get arrested for that and have your baby placed in protective custody. They were obviously addicts; the boy had festering track marks on his arms. It was heartbreaking, but I gave them a dollar.
“Why did you give them money?” She asked.
“You know what they’re going to do with it.”
Actually, I don’t know. They might buy drugs with it, but they might also feed the baby.
They don’t make cases like this anymore.
Stinky trombone guy enters the train with the trombone in its case, sets it on the floor, and takes out the trombone to play. Sunday night I noticed he also placed a tall boy of beer tightly wrapped in a paper sack next to it. He’ll buy more beer with the money, was my thought. Whether he will or not, though, is none of my business.