29 October 2004
My birthday is coming up and my Chicago license is expiring. So, I went to Coney Island to apply for my New York State Driver's License. On the train, a man began to play a guitar.
Blowing a row of peruvian flutes around his neck, he proceeded to play a slow, mournful instrumental version of "The Sound of Silence." (I had shown "The Graduate" to my students just a few days before, comparing it to the opening sequence of "Jackie Brown.") He looked down the train and into my eyes, as if to say, "You are going to give me the change in your pocket." I did, of course.
The Department of Motor Vehicles was vast and Gilliamesque. I was surrounded by Russian and Polish people, Central and South American people, Chinese people, and Yankees of every conceivable age, income and background. As I waited nervously for my passport to be handed back (I'm worried every day that I might need it two weeks from now), the black girl behind the counter with the checkered sweater vest swayed and sang along to Beyoncé on the radio. How can you not sing along to that part, she laughed, embarrassed and happy.
On a train to Manhattan, an overweight black man with dead looking eyes wailed:
"Oh, how I love Jesus... He'll never forsake me."
As he sang, a catatonic white woman walked past him and talked over him in her own quick, emotionless appeal: "I fell down the steps and I have no food to eat." The only person who gave her any money was the mentally unbalanced train preacher, who paused his singing, made a show of handing the woman a few coins, and then resumed his strange, oblivious duet of words and music with her. When she left, he sat down and continued to preach and sing to no one in particular. "I love you, I need you, Jesus." I'm pretty sure he was making up part of the song up as he went along.
Seeing him reminded me of one of my oldest fears. In college, I was into theater. At the last theater picnic before I left Virginia forever, I was voted Most Likely To Be Homeless. I think this is because I liked to sleep on the benches at the front of the theater building (I still dream about them) and didn't shower often enough. Anyway, I have always been terrified of ending up as a mentally unbalanced homeless person, and not just because of the dubious honor conferred upon me in college. Several incidents in my family have contributed to this ongoing trepidation.
The deranged preacher interrupted my reverie. "I sing because the angels in heaven like to hear me sing," he explained to no one in particular. The chinese couple across from me looked at him blankly as he debarked at the Delancey stop.
On the train home (yes, it is becoming home):
A blonde man sat across from a black kid opening a tall can of Boddingtons ale in his lap.
I spilled it all over myself, the man complained. The black kid chuckled. Look, I'm visiting my parents in Long Island, he continued, enjoying his audience. I'm gonna need this.
The days are getting shorter, the nights longer. I stood on my rooftop the other night playing my boombox and looking up at a partial lunar eclipse (a tennis ball rusting into nothing) as the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Babe. At my side was Graham Drysdale, a Scottish filmmaker who was sleeping on my sofa for a night, my roommate Bob, and Bob's and sister Wendy. We drank Brooklyn Lager and stared into the dark and the clouds.
"God won't give us what we want, but he will give us what you need." So claimed the overwrought, balding black preacher‚ with the limp voice and the huge, tattered bible on the 'F' train. I disagree. I think God will give us what we want, but we have to wrestle him for it.