“I don’t know if we have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” Forest Gump
I used to ride the New York subway. I believe it was the blue “E” or the orange “F” train if memory and color recollection serve me, or both depending upon the time and location of where I grabbed the line. My route was from Forest Hills, Queens to Rockefeller Center, NYC. Sounds like swanky real estate for those familiar with the city. And in many ways if I had to be a city girl, unable to afford city rent, which I couldn’t, it was as swank as I was going to get.
There ain’t nothing swanky about the subway. And for a naïve red-headed, half Irish, half WASP girl from Central Jersey, uneducated and inexperienced at the time to political correctness and city hustling and crowds, homesickness for my boring, small commuter town grew all the more.
Most people start their day off with a good cup of Jo’. Subway riders wake up their senses to urine aromatherapy mixed with the distinct scent of oily soot, followed by a game of “Don’t Step on the Mother Roach” and “I Spy a Giant Rat!” played in a dark, dank cave deep underground where sunlight was an anomaly.
Then began the rat race of finding an inch on the train. Describing people squeezed together like sardines is so cliché yet so very accurate. People would cuss each other out for invading their space. Space?! What space! There were those who would take naps on another stranger’s shoulder followed by cussing from that stranger. Those who played their Walkman cassettes or CD’s, either air singing and dancing, or flat out shouting the tune because the music blared so loudly in their ears. They were oblivious to the fool they made, followed by dirty glares or cussing from strangers.
There were the random acts of kindness which reminded one that humanity wasn’t extinct; those who’d give up their rare seat to the pregnant or elderly. People watching was some of the best in the world. My eyes wandered around the car analyzing each individual, creating stories in my head about their history or being. There were those who’d stare at you like they wanted to kill you for what reason I don’t know? Perhaps they caught me staring at them?
I was soon part of the daily subway grind. I became oblivious to those around me even though our bodies were pressed up against one another other. I honed my Walkman CD and spent the summer listening to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Green Day, Rusted Root, Beethoven, or Chopin. Sometimes I too may have been guilty or singing out loud “Jeremy spoken, clea ear as the day…” or teary eyed and emotional from the climax of a Chopin Nocturne.
I learned to ride the subway and I even learned to like it. It became a comforting cocoon in my daily ritual of a world I wasn’t sure how I had arrived, if I even had arrived or perhaps I was just a passenger on the train waiting for my stop.
I was a young adult, fresh out of college in my early twenties in the early 90’s. I loved the great outdoors, animals, classical music, walks along a country lane, the smell of salt water from the creek, the songs of birds, pancakes on the griddle, a warm fire and family. I played by the rules. Yet one day my world turned from Norman Rockwell to Twilight Zone. I found myself eons away from my warm, suburban family home, homeless with hardly a cent to my name. The silver lining in all of this was a job offer, in the big city, that couldn’t pay rent.
One sleepless night in a friend’s basement that I was crashing in until I could find permanent shelter, my reality set in and it was daunting. Like Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, I felt my desperation as I shuddered and pleaded to anyone from above that would listen, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” I cried and cried in fear and panic on how I was going to get myself out of this homeless, poverty stricken predicament. I prayed and prayed. I summoned my maternal grandmother’s spirit for guidance. Her vision of pale, blue, bright and kind eyes imprinted on a round, loving, jovial and generous head of faded red hair. I called to her, “Help a dear Irish lass out would ya dear Nannie? I’m lost and don’t know my way home. Give me strength and love to see this through, guide me to grace.” All of a sudden an answer appeared! “Call Uncle Jack!”
The next day I put a call into my mom’s brother Jack. Jane picked up the phone, and before I could even udder the words, she said, “You come live with us.”
My Uncle Jack was a fifty something, six foot, 300 plus pound, pot smoking (he didn’t inhale), beer drinking, Entenman’s chocolate cake eating, hippy, Vietnam veteran, with the biggest heart on the planet.
Uncle Jack lived in Forest Hills, Queens, NY, home of the former US Open tennis tournament for those tennis fans. He worked for the subway system and lived in a lovely, pre-war building with his live in girl friend of 20 some years named Jane, or Aunt Jane to me. Jane was previously married to a Jewish man whose parents escaped a German Nazi camp. Jane became widowed at a young age as her husband died prematurely from suicide or brain tumor I never was clear. Was it the brain tumor that caused the desperate suicide? Anyway, it was tragic none the less.
Jane did not drink or smoke. She was maybe four feet eleven inches and weighed about 200 pounds. She spoke with this sweet Minnie Mouse voice of reason and had the biggest heart on the planet next to Uncle Jack. She had a daughter named Jill or Elaine, depending upon her alias, that lived in Colorado or Las Vegas, depending upon her situation. Since her father predeceased her, she was the sole heir to her German grandparents’ fortune. After World War II they immigrated to America and achieved the American dream striking it rich in something metal business related.
Elaine Jill was a multi-millionaire, red-headed, beastly looking woman with a voice and personality to match. She had a son named, I don’t remember because he too had two names, Jay or Connor I think. Jill Elaine even took the family name O’Connor, relation to Carroll O’Connor aka Archie Bunker. Anyway, Jill or Elaine became pregnant at the age of 16 by a Puerto Rican who tried to kidnap her son hence the alias names and residences. Her son Jay Connor was a sweet boy, somewhat dirty, by dirty he knew too much perversion for his ripe, young age. He too had red hair. Jill Elaine Jay Connor O’Connor dropped in from time to time.
We were all in the family and that’s the background on that.
Overnight I became a city girl living in a pre-war, cock roach infested apartment, stone’s throw from the incessant noise of JFK airport, no air conditioning on a humid city summer’s day, away from home with a new set of characters. And I rode the subway.
Despite all the change, life was good those two years with Jack and Jane. They were so good to me and I loved them dearly. There are many stories to tell of our time and I will tell them. But as much as I adapted to the city and all its glory, I still was just a passenger on the train, not knowing my stop but anxious to get off.
I suppressed my fears, my sadness, mourning for what was, missing my family, my home, my innocence. Longing for sunshine.
One day I got on the subway headed back to Queens. The car was empty which was so unusual but welcome. I had the whole car to myself. I had whatever seat I wanted. Just the sounds of the ball bearings screeching as the car jumbled over tracks and turns. Then suddenly an interruption to my peace and blissful serenity, as a homeless man that reminded me of Mr. Bo Jangles, straggly, scrawny and disheveled came passing my way.
My city instincts took over as I did not let my glance meet his. I kept to myself, my guard at high, bracing myself until he’d move onto the next car. Did he want money, was he a drunk or druggie, a lunatic, a rapist? I didn’t know of his purpose or direction but I was alone with this strange man.
He swung from pole to pole and began to sing. He serenaded me with The Drifter’s tune “Up on the Roof” and it was beautiful. I lifted my head and gave him my full attention, released my tensed brace and embraced his fluid and melodic voice, immersing myself in the lyrics:
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now
When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up the roof (up on the roof)
At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me
I keep a-tellin’ you
Right smack dab in the middle of town
I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof (up on the roof)
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two
Up on the roof…Everything is all right (up on the roof)
He was a stranger who appeared out of nowhere, he appeared to have nothing but he gave me a gift I will never forget. With his beautiful voice and spirit he filled my heart with love, and hope, and joy, and spirit. He put an unexpected smile on my face. His songs lifted me up and reminded me that we are alive no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We are alive. No matter where we are, where we are going, or where we have been, we have life and breath, and hope, and light, and we are all the same. We may not know our destiny and we may be drifting along like a feather in a breeze floating aimlessly in a strange land but we have purpose and we have a destiny and we will get there. Until then, there’s room enough up on the roof.
How could a stranger, a drifter, a wandering figure, etch such a memory in my mind and heart decades later? He sang for me as he floated along. He asked for nothing, no money, nothing. Maybe he was crazy, mentally ill, maybe he was lost? Maybe he just felt like riding the subway and signing a song to any who would listen. And I did listen. To this day whenever I hear the song either on the radio or in my head, I think of that moment, am thankful for it, and I smile.
**Disclaimer - the characters in this story are strictly fictional and any resemblance to similar characters are strictly coincidental. They are the creation of my highly sensitive imagination based on random encounters.