In Transit, Confessions from the Conscience of a Blackened Street
Walter played like the tar stained street and uneven, smeared pavements were swallowing him whole. Like at any moment the large fractures in the cement were going to open up and encase him. He played like no one sang anymore. If they did, it was impossible to hear their disdainful song over the deafening pulse of the street. Walter’s saxophone played to the throbbing rhythm of that unspeakable fear. Not a specific fear, but that generic brand of fear that hid in between the insignificant crevices of the street, beneath the sea of cynical malt liquor bottles, and taunting cigarette butts, and into the trail of tears that they drowned in. Walter played for the street because the street had an insatiable appetite.
I wanted desperately to be Walter’s song. That song didn’t know what it was like to be trapped, pinned down to the unyielding curb. While he played, I shut my eyes and tapped my foot on the littered sidewalk and for those minutes before my train arrived Walter was my Billie.
“I wish someone would shut him the hell up,” an annoyed young woman said while dragging her infant down the train platform. There was a tepid bitterness in her step. I would have been able to recognize that step blindfolded. It was as if she was punishing each cement block she came across for her fate. She looked like she would have been prom queen, like if she wound back the vindictive hands of time, she would have smiled at Walter, not because she was amused by his playing, but because his song stirred up her insides, and for a few brief moments made her want to change her stride. The lines beneath her eyes and her hardened grimace were proof she had let the street win. A faint hint of beauty rested on her face like a thin layer of dust on a painting. As the blustery wind blew back auburn strands of hair, I saw in full view her battle scars. She carried them in her banal eyes which spat dragon sized fireballs each time she blinked.
“This ain’t no goddamn jazz club,” she roared pacing the length of the train platform. Her little girl gripped her ice cream cone tightly while struggling to stay upright as her mother quickened her pace. Her pink berets bounced up and down as her mouth struggled to catch the drips of ice cream falling from her cone.
Walter appeared unfazed by the cross woman’s complaints. He looked like a Walter. I didn’t know his name for certain, but it seemed appropriate. He reminded me of cobblestone. He leaned back when he hit a high note, like he was going to tilt over at any moment, like someone trying to stay balanced while walking over that historic style of concrete. The grey specks of his hair peeked out of his plaid fedora. His loafers were faded and worn by the grinding wheels of time. The sharp, winter draft blew his thin, corduroy blazer as he played under the 60th and Market El underpass.
The little girl dropped her cone just as Walter paused for his next song. He always waited after each set, as if he expected someone to make a request. I thought about it once, but it was nice not knowing what was coming next. There was something invigorating about waiting for something to become sense. As her eyes followed the ice cream cone’s descent, tears swelled quickly in her tiny sockets. Her mother finally looked down, detaching herself from the receiver of her cell phone. “Damn, you should have held on to it. I ain’t buyin’ you another one.”
The little girl licked the remaining ice cream from the corners of her mouth, savoring the last of her treat. Walter stopped mid-song. He stared intensely at the child’s endearing pout. As if accustomed to the disappointment, she started palming small balls of snow. She licked the snow ball slowly and surreptitiously. Her mother caught her on the third lick and smacked the ball out of her cupped hands, irritated by the second disruption of her conversation. Walter glared at the young girl’s drenched hands and knelt down beside his tip cup. He counted out several coins and placed his saxophone in its case. He scurried around the corner and came back minutes later with a slightly dripping vanilla ice cream cone.
The little girl leaped up and down as she watched him kneel and hand it to her. As she reached for the cone, her mother flung Walter’s arm away, causing the cone to splatter on the ground.
“Oh, hell no. Don’t be givin’ my daughter nothin’. What the hell is wrong with you?” Walter shook his head repeatedly, squeezing the lids of his eyes as if he was trying to wake himself from a bad dream. He mumbled what sounded like nonsensical chants while his fedora shook uncontrollably. The palms of his hands rubbed together like they were over a smoldering aluminum canister. He finally opened his eyes wide and extended his arm and pointed to the corner store. Still, no words were uttered.
“What are you fucking retarded or something? Take ya dirty ass over there to your saxophone. She don’t need no more anyway. She wasted my damn money,” the balls of fire sizzled onto the snowy ground.
Walter walked over to the overflowing trash can and tossed the cone in. The El pulled up, and we entered the doors that told us in a robotic tone that they were closing. We entered quickly, anxious to escape the cold. The woman tugged at her daughter’s arm and roughly placed her in a seat. The young girl scooted in the seat to get comfortable and squashed her tulip shaped nose against the glass window, waving to Walter who was still playing on the platform. As the train veered off, the little girl’s hands wrapped around her imaginary saxophone, leaning her head back and then forward like her and Walter were on the same block of cobblestone, trying to stay balanced. She played Sentimental Mood with Walter until he was gone, and she finished the set without him. No one sang along.