Today. The “E” train, around 3:30 pm and I’m on my way downtown to see a friend’s photography. Nice cool subway car brought relief from a way too humid New York. The subway doors opened at 42nd street and a stout man in a t-shirt with a classical guitar began to sing Besame Mucho. Harmonizing with the man was a child – probably his own. The child was about 10 – maybe 12 – and he carried an empty McDonald’s cup to collect the money that he and his singing partner would collect during their concert tour of the subway system. The father stood by one exit in the middle of the train while the child moved through the subway car and held the cup out in front of everyone’s face as he passed by them – harmonizing as he went and staring directly into the eyes of subway patrons. For a brief moment as the young boy stopped in front of each person, I sensed the slightest trace of hesitation, a flickering remorse that snaked its way into the boy’s throat. The patrons in the subway looked away from the boy’s eyes as he stood in front of him but followed his movements once he turned away. A child – begging in the subway while singing with a man whom everyone assumed was his father. The child was clean, pressed shorts and stripped shirt – short hair and sneakers – not expensive, functional. He was functional. They were functioning together. Remnants of the boy’s longing to be a child coursed through his body and expelled its light in his eyes – but only for fragments of seconds. He struggled to comply – to be so proud and nonchalant as he begged while singing with his father. As each flash of longing appeared in his face, his accomplished façade dissipated, his harmony faltered for a moment and then, he gathered his small frame and moved to the next subway passenger.
He tried not to linger too long in front of anyone who didn’t immediately reach for his or her wallet. He was practiced at this and pity frightened him. He moved on once he noticed the smallest rebuke or the slightest grimace, or a disdainful brow. This had become his way to function in the world and with each subway patron he refined his approach, he held his arm up an inch higher. He waited for a young woman with long, beautiful brown hair to dig in her enormous bag in search of loose change. His eyes blinked their approval as she dropped two one-dollar bills into his McDonald’s cup. He never smiled – never broke his harmony, never wavered in his intent. I wondered if in his senior years he would look back on these occasions and consider his father with loathing. Perhaps he would be thankful for the hard lessons of a deprived childhood. Perhaps this would force him to excel in school and business so that he would never need to enlist his own children to beg with him on a subway. Perhaps he would never have children knowing what indignities can be visited upon those who are powerless. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.