An old man supplies the breath but the inspiration comes from angels
A day in the life of a Subway Flutist
(A s story by Moarzjasac)
Walking close to the wall in the stairwell helps prevent me from falling. When one is young, and in a hurry, it is all too easy to shoulder an old beggar man out of the way. It is best for me to avoid heavy foot traffic whenever possible. I carry a lightweight folding stool in one hand while navigating the steps down into the subway. In my other hand is a heavy wooden cane. Not yet conceding the need for a white cane to feel my way through the shrinking world of oncoming blindness I'm dependent on listening to the tiny sounds from every corner of this Cathedral of the underground. Angels spend a lot of overtime here; you can hear them hard at work.
The voice of my friend, Tony, comes from behind the counter where he sells coffee and assorted prepackaged eats. His chipper, enthusiastic welcome brings a smile to my face. “Cold morning isn’t it, Mo,” he says, his breath forming a cloud in the cold draft from the street above.
“It sure is. It looks like we’ll get more snow.” Keeping the involuntary shiver out of my voice is difficult.
A cup of the fragrant brew simmering on the Bunn burner behind his counter would be delicious; however, paying for coffee is impossible just now, as my total cash on hand is a nickel and three pennies. A small amount of change exposed in my hat makes it obvious that donations are accepted. Spending it now even if it were enough to buy coffee, is out of the question. An empty hat has an annoying tendency to stay that way.
Setting my stool between a stanchion and the end of Tony’s counter leaves plenty of room for passersby to access Tony’s tiny service counter. I present the smallest obstacle possible parked on my stool that removes a lot of strain from my legs. My heavy-wool Salvation Army long-coat hangs from my shoulders to the tops of my mismatched sox. My feet don’t know the difference between matched and unmatched; They just want to be warm.
The loose part of my coat provides a warm storage place for my treasured flutes which I carry with me everywhere that I go. The flutes stay snugly tucked under my left armpit, so they require less warmup to play them. A cold flute just doesn’t sound the same as a warm one. I apply a thin coat of margarine to the pads of my fingers which must be pliable enough to seal the holes in my flute to prevent undesired squeaks and squawks.
Today it takes me quite awhile longer than usual to assemble the larger of my flutes. My attempt to run a quick scale is prohibited by my cold stiff fingers locking up and refusing to function. I wear finger-less gloves to allow the pads of my fingers to seal the holes in the flute. The gloves provide little good insulation and only a minuscule amount of protection from the biting winter wind on the street above, I wear thin outer gloves over my knit ones when I am out and about.
Tony smiles widely at me. “Here, Mo, you look frozen stiff. A cup of hot coffee might help. This stuff is two hours old so I’m making another pot and it will go to waste unless you drink it or at least use it for a hand warmer. I want to hear some of your music. People tend to cluster around my counter when you play.”
Tony thrusts a steaming cup of coffee into my hands. “I depend on your music to help sell my sandwiches. I’ll make you one special for your help.”
“Thank you, Tony.” Smiling and holding the hot cup for a few seconds allows the heat from the coffee to penetrate my half-frozen fingers. Soon the flute grabs hold of the wispy tail of a comet-like sphere of pure musical energy which is flying through the universe. The song from the flute is lively and bright, full of the warmth of Tony’s generosity. It can’t be missed by the pulse of passersby emerging from the train.
Although thousands of people pass within inches of my face each day few ever see me. To be quite honest, my eyes do not see them very well either. But I am aware of them. There are other channels of communication. Images from their lives are projected onto the canvas of my busy mind. How they sound, the way they smell and what body language I can still read fills in their stories.
One VA Doctor told me that he suspects that I’m an Empath. “There is no pill or treatment to change the things you see and feel,” the doctor said at the end of a session many years ago. I haven’t been back since. I’ve just learned to cope with the constant barrage of information I receive from others.
A slight break from the deluge of images projected from the rapidly passing foot traffic results from the high voltage on the power rail arcing to the trains' pick-up brushes. The generated ozone adds an acrid taste to the air and a burst of wide spectrum magnetic radio interference that momentarily overloads my sixth sense receptors, resulting in a different kind of blindness. I thank God that these intense periods of isolation are brief.
The ozone in the air blends with the essence of tension omnipresent in the cloud rising from hundreds of crowded bodies rushing onto and off from the busy trains. Sometimes people are so eager to complete their travels they push in more than what is comfortable for me. Right now, they are regulated by random holes in the crowd. I watch people take an extra couple steps to fill each hole as the crowd moves on.
I am amazed that not a single passenger seems to be aware they relinquish complete control of their lives to someone who they can’t see and probably never will meet when they board the trains. For the duration of their ride on the electric train passing rapidly beneath the surface of the city, the care of all the lives on the train is handed off casually to nameless, faceless strangers. I think this is a perfect example of blind trust.
Not much air circulates down here except when express trains rush by the station. Garlic and the lingering odor of pizza is trapped on many of the fingers that pass by nose high, barely a foot away from my stool. The composite mixture of air down here smells of sweat, wet wool, and very old cheese laced with trails of aftershave, perfume, deodorant, shampoo and makeup.
Five steps in front of their harried mother a pair of small red-haired freckle-faced twin boys’ race from the train. “Play Muffin Man, please Mister.” Muffin Man flows from my flute, it is empowered by the smiles of sheer delight that paint the faces of the boys.
It is obvious to me that their poor mother is hanging tenaciously to the very end of her rope. She pauses and murmurs, "Thank you." She is embarrassed, as she has no spare change to toss into my hat.
“Those smiles are more pay than I have a right to expect!” I play “Candy Man” next and the mother’s smile merges with those of her two children. Hopefully, she will enjoy a few moments of well-earned peace.
Some days there are a lot of passersby, but, some smells and sounds become recognizable, and I know just who to expect long before my old eyes can identify the faces.
The sound of corduroy pants is distracting. It echoes off the concrete and brick of the station walls, Whiiiihhh, Whiiiihhh, Whiiiihhh. New from the store, corduroy pants sound much different than ones which have been washed a few times. The newer are louder, more insistent proclaiming, “Here I am.”
I can’t help but play a song for the young man who wears the well-worn ones. I recognize the signs that he has spent many hours out in the subzero cold, fruitlessly searching for a job, any job, to pay rent and feed his growing family. The force of the music flowing from my flute attempts to ease his pain for just a moment.
A cloud of sadness cloaks his thin shoulders. He has no idea what to tell his wife when he returns home empty handed to their tiny apartment. A rent payment is due in just a few days. He doggedly plods on with the weight of failure pressing heavily upon his tired young shoulders. Precious time is running out. I feel his pain and sense that he has not eaten today because he left all the available food for his very pregnant wife and unborn child.
The young man walks within inches of me.
“Here you need this more than I do.” I press the subway sandwich that Tony just gave me into his hand. He looks at it and I can see a wave of indecision cross his face.
“I’ll eat a couple bites of it and take what is left to my family.” He smiles, “Thank you!”
Faces full of hope and despair, love and hate, joy and pain fill the platform. I hear, smell, see and feel their stories. Slowly the fragments of the lives that people unconsciously show me integrate into the fabric of the angel music which flows from the flute powered by an old man’s breath and so much more.
Time passes slowly between trains. The day drags on, measured by the staccato beat of melting ice dripping steadily from an overhead hot water pipe onto the top of the toll keeper’s booth.
After several hours my hat contains only five quarters more than I started with this morning.I am about to consider this day a complete waste when a small crowd gathers in anticipation of the arrival of the next local connection to Downtown. They mill around virtually at my feet. Tony does a brisk business selling hot chocolate, coffee, popcorn, and white paper-wrapped sandwiches.
Suddenly, one of those rare but unforgettable moments that inspire this old man’s life begins. My fingers find the flute and from it, emerges a song that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It fills the entire underground, spreading its blessing over all present.
A pink-faced, middle-aged, slightly overweight, but well-dressed dowager smiles. It is her first one today. It grows even wider as the music gains intensity. The stone chamber of the train station begins to reverberate. Several more people stop to listen. The angel music is full and strong and uses this old man solely as a source of air. Each note floats on gossamer wings just above the heads of the milling crowd waiting for the train.
Time all but stops. Waiting passengers remove earphones and stop fiddling with cellphones wondering, what is the sound that everyone is listening to? The platform becomes a resonate chamber enhancing the sound that is everywhere now. It cannot be stopped or even slowed down. It has a life completely its own.
“I remember that song from my wedding.”
Coins began to drop by the handful. The clusters of people who crowd around me are generous with their praise, and dollar bills begin to fall like snowflakes into my hat.
“The music is beautiful.”
“It makes me feel good.”
My amazement turns into a profitable moment for all. God himself gently pulls something peaceful and beautiful from my flute. All too soon, the sound is brutally interrupted by the roar of an approaching train. The graceful notes dwindle and vanish like wisps of smoke among the hundred or so people who suddenly share an irrational desire to know what time it is. Everyone consults the watch on their wrist. It seems important to them right now, to identify this place and time when they return from where the music carried them a few moments ago.
The doors on the train whoosh open to the sound of clapping people disappearing inside. It is extremely humbling to know God touched all these people with the sound he pulled so gently from my flute.
A very rare and sacred event has just occurred. I hold the flute with reverence. People heard the song of the angels! Thanks to them there is money; all that I need now, plus some to share with others. I think of the young man to whom I gave my sandwich. Too bad that he isn’t here now for me to share some money with. Perhaps tomorrow.
So many haven’t got a warm dry place to lay their head. I do and I am thankful for a home to return to.
“Way to go, Mo, that was awesome,” says Tony with a smile on his face. “I did a lot of business in just a few minutes.”
Now the platform is almost empty; it will be half an hour before the next local train will stop here. As an Express train thunders by. I hear timid, almost childlike, footsteps approaching.
It is a young lady who smells of incense. The odor clings to her knee-length gray tweed woolen skirt. She has on brightly colored argyle stockings to keep her lower legs warm. Her shoes are plain black, rather masculine Oxfords. It is obvious to me that she has just arrived from Mass at the Cathedral on the next block.
Her voice is sweet and unspoiled by the world. “I heard that wonderful sound; all the Angels were singing along.” She is close enough for me to investigate her radiant face. She is young, and she shines with the luster of freshly polished bronze. Her aura is a strange mixture of extreme peace laced with flickers of anxiety. “Do things like that happen here often?” I realize that she waited patiently and probably missed her train to hear the Music and to ask me that question.
She stands in silence waiting for an answer, completely unaware of everything she is showing me. When I look deeply into her eyes, I see pictures, like a slide show; vignettes of the life of a young girl, who recently left a convent and has yet to find her place in this strange outside world. She now spends forty hours a week as a teller behind a counter at a bank. 5:30 PM, Mass is still a daily ritual for her.
My ears fill with the beautiful sound of a group of young girls singing as they enjoy the acoustics of an old stone walkway between buildings bringing new life to “Ave Maria." I know that the girl from the convent doesn’t realize what she is sending to me.
“When did you leave the convent?” I ask, certain as even more pictures of her life flash before my eyes.
She looks at me in sheer disbelief. “Who are you? How can you know that? I’ve told no one.”
“Sometimes I just know things and see pictures, especially of bittersweet things that people have experienced. With some people, it is as if we share the same space and time, for a few moments.” I shrug my shoulders because there is no real-world explanation of what just occurred. “It is like the music; sometimes, it just happens.”
“Will I see you again,” she asks?
“That is completely up to you; every day I am here about this time. I will keep playing here until God calls my name.”
Her cheeks turn pink with embarrassment as the thought crosses her mind that this is the seventh week that she has passed here twice a day, and until a few minutes ago I have been totally invisible to her bright brown eyes.
“It’s OK, sometimes I am invisible,” I say, and even though it is below zero outside, I suddenly feel warm and welcome sitting on my stool next to where she is standing.
She lightly touches my shoulder. I feel it to my core. “I will pray for this beautiful creature,” I think to myself. I smile as warmly as I am capable and extract my littlest flute which has been warming inside my coat pocket all day long. It is full of sweet music crying to be set free into the cold late afternoon air. I begin to play a song of warm breezes, soaring birds, and colorful flowers. The music is incandescent and pours free in shimmering wisps that fly freely through my underground cathedral.
“I’ll pray for you too,” she says just loudly enough for me to hear her admission that she, too, is like me. Minutes pass, and she stands spellbound in awe of the sound that surrounds her. When her train arrives, she boards and gives a shy little wave through the window. A look in her eyes says that she hopes that perhaps I can answer some important questions for her.
I listen with my ears and open my soul. I know she can feel me here waiting patiently. I will play music for her to the steady rhythm of her loving heart. I’ll do my best to answer her questions. I know some questions have no answers except through the living of one’s life.
A coarse voice of a policeman interrupts my woolgathering. “Move along, Buddy;” the pain of his aching feet resonates in the sound of his voice. Squeaking loudly his uniform shoes speak of his pain as he walks on to roust the next loiterer hiding from the cold.
Thanking providence for my long heavy wool Melton, coat, I gather it around me to keep the icy wind from insinuating its cold knife-like fingers into the warm place where my soul lives.
From the subway entrance, it is a three-block walk to the crumbling third-floor walk-up where I live, and a six-block walk on to the library. I sometimes spend hours in the library. My world is compressed into less than two square miles of city. There are few places I go to because my fifty-odd years of paying into social security barely covers my rent and my share of the utilities. There are between eleven and forty dollars left each month depending on the weather. I spend it as wisely as possible and hope for generous tips like today from those who hear my songs. That's what fills my belly and my soul.
My world is expanded generously by bits and pieces from hundreds of lives that pass closely by mine. People have no idea of what they share with me. I breathe a short prayer, “Thank you God.”
Energized I ascend the stairs out of the subway into the freezing wind that is blowing powdered snow from curb to curb. I know that the girl in the gray tweed skirt will seek me out again, at least once. Perhaps she will open her heart again. Moments like that form links in the chain of my life and the notes from my flute weld them together with pure energy. I pray it is enough.
“What to do? Is this ability a blessing or a curse?”
On my way home, I visit the giant chamber that is the interior of the Basilica. Lighting a candle and kneeling before a full-size replica of the Pieta I think about how a mother would feel holding her murdered son.
The image of the girl who showed me her soul today flashes before my eyes. “Please take care of her,” I whisper, certain that somewhere both mother and son hear my plea.
The young woman I met today is like a tiny candle flame in a large darkened room. She is visible from every corner, yet by herself alone she is unable to see the dangers that lurk subtly in shadows of dark corners, waiting patiently for just the right moment to strike. She needs all the help that she can get.
I think, “It is amazing to me how people like us shatter basic physical law. When we are together the resultant light is much brighter than the sum of its parts. From where does the extra energy come? Someday perhaps I will have an answer."
I stop at a convenience store to pick up a can of soup and a dozen eggs. I slowly limp up the crumbling stairs to my walk-up. God has been very good this day to a nearly blind old beggar man named Mo.