“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. 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.
However, I really don't think there's anything swanky about the subway. And for a young twenty something, naïve girl from the burbs moving to the big city, 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. But there I was.
Most people start their day off with a good cup of Joe. 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.
After spotting the rat it was time to enter the race, fighting for an inch on the train. Then a little role play of acting like a sardine in a can of stinky olive oil, just to claim an ounce of territory for the commute. Cussing from strangers for space invasion or happy nappy time on the shoulders of a stuck passenger pigeon holed into another were common occurrences. I often chuckled and cringed at 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 looked so silly.
I often witnessed courteous acts of train sacrifice which reminded me on the bleak ride that humanity wasn’t extinct; those who’d give up their rare seat to the pregnant or elderly. People watching was pretty good. My eyes wandered around the car analyzing each individual, creating stories in my head about their history or being. Sometimes a rider would give the dark lord stare like they wanted to kill for reasons unbeknownst to me. Perhaps they didn't want to be included in my people watching game.
Acclimation took hold and 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. I honed my Walkman CD and spent the summer closing myself out from those around me. I too became the silly fool that sang out loud.
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.
Overnight I became a city girl living in a cockroach infested apartment, stone’s throw from the incessant noise of JFK airport, no air conditioning on a humid city's summer’s day, away from home with a new set of characters. And I rode the subway.
One day, on my usual route home, I hopped on my usual train line. 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 new 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 like Jimmy Stewart in "Singing in the Rain" and began to sing to me. He serenaded me with The Drifter’s tune “Up on the Roof." 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 seemed to appear out of nowhere. He appeared to have nothing but a song. He put an unexpected smile on my face that awakened my spirit to the everyday drudgery of a lone subway ride. I thought to myself that no matter our lot or place in time we can shut out all the ugliness and escape in our minds until we are ready to move to the next car. We are free; the rest is just a distraction. 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 a destiny. Until then, there’s room enough up on the roof.
It was an odd encounter.
It was an odd encounter.
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.