Tue, 30 Jun 2009 00:29:00 +0000

I saw the greatest subway performer ever today.

It was on a busy uptown train, on the especially long stretch between 59th and 125th streets. I first noticed him because his facial structure reminded me of my grandpa. His cheeks bones were prominent, but the skin covering it was thin and sunken. He wore a red cap, like my grandpa often does, and his eyes looked deep in thought, just like gramps.

But as the train doors closed, this man wrapped himself around a pole like an exotic dancer — something I hope grandpa would never do —and belted out a chord.

“I knew a maaaaaaan…”

His scratchy tenor voice held out a vibrato that would make a lion look up from an antelope carcass. Slowly, ear buds came out of people’s ears and, suddenly, this man — this black version of my grandpa — had an audience of 30 people.

He continued: “His friend said he was a fine fellow…”

He swung from pole to pole, occasionally snapping his fingers.

“But what no one knew was that this man was far from fine…”

At this point, we realized the lyrics weren’t in verse. But his melodies were familiar — a mix of Gershwin and Elton John, with a touch of Randy Newman.

“This maaaaan, he beat! His! Wiiiiiiiife!”

He stomped his foot with each exclamation. Even the man playing on his shiny new Palm Pre looked up.

“This man seemed like a fine fellow. But he beat his wife ‘til she’d bellow. Then he’d get… mellow.”

He repeated that verse a few times, always with a different melody.

“This man seemed like a fine fellow. But he beat his wife ‘til she’d bellow. Then he’d get… mellow.”

Several of us had smirks on our faces. He was so dramatic; so serious; so… funny. Then, he ended his performance.

“If you’re one of those men, you should grab a pen, and write an apology to your woman. Because believe it or not, I’m here and I rot, because I was that man who hit his girl. Because, believe it or not, I’m here and she’s not, because I hurt my Gwen.”

Then he walked around the subway car with his red hat upside down, asking for money. A dollar here and a quarter there, and soon he had at least $5. But then he said, “If anyone needs this money, please raise your hand because someone may need it more than me. Someone once shared with me, so I wish to share with them.”

No one raised their hand — who would? — but people, touched by his willingness to pay it forward, gave him more money.

“Someone once shared with me, so I want to share with them.”

Again, people took out more money. But no one would publicly admit they needed a few dollars.

Once more, the man asked. “If anyone needs this, I want to share. I’ll split it with you.” Again, he got a few more bucks.

Then the train reached 125th, the doors opened and the man left with a well-deserved hat full of money.

What a performance.