I really didn't intend for this blog to become just stories about New York stuff, but that's proving difficult because this crazy city is what I'm faced with every day and much of it is still very novel to me. There isn't a lot that happens here that can be explained without the context of New York. If I write about something that happened to me in a subway but don't mention New York, you might assume an aromatic backdrop of freshly baked bread and the presence of sandwich artists. But this tale is about a different kind of odor and a different kind of artist.
My girlfriend and I were riding the subway a few weeks back when a homeless man came onto the train car and began singing. This is a pretty common occurrence, though not quite as common as a sob story crafted to pull at your heart strings. Those are the two primary tactics used to get money on the subway. The passengers must somehow be shifted from their natural state of just not giving a shit. You can make them feel good enough to part with a few dollars by pumping out a rendition of "My girl", "Lean on me" or "Stand by me". (I don't know why, but these are the only songs. It's like they all had a big homeless meeting about it.) Or you can make them feel bad enough to donate by shouting a story at nobody in particular wherein you mention your military service, your status as a single parent, or (non-contagious) medical problems.
No sooner than this scraggly man began crooning, I realized that his gift of song came wrapped in a urine cloud, topped with a bow of sweat fumes. We weren't even standing that close to him. There was half a train car between him and us. For that I am ever grateful. At an arm's length his smell may have been terminal. The whole situation created an unprecedented conflict of my senses. In the same human being my ears found a friend and my nose made an enemy. It was such a disagreement that my other senses had to take sides. My mouth quickly joined team nose, as evidenced by my tightly clenched jaw and bone-dry palate. After frantically scanning for alternative origins of this scent, my eyes put their support behind my ears and refused to look at anything else for the next 3 minutes.
In most fields, success isn't just about talent. It's also about being easy to work with, showing up on time, dressing appropriately for the job. Likewise, in singing for tips on the subway success isn't just about silky smooth vocals. It's also very much about not smelling like rotten eggs. That is so important. Most likely this man was clueless to his aroma. That's probably what was going on. But the much more perplexing reality is one where he knew exactly how bad he smelled. That would mean that he is so confident in his vocal abilities he thinks he can out-sing that odor. That's a kind of ambition Steve Jobs wished he had. It's not that this man's voice was that bad, but the level at which he would have to sing to offset that smell has yet to be reached by humanity. If Michael Buble stays diligent and we can extend his lifespan considerably he may someday get there, but I seriously doubt it. The real performance taking place was his own ability to continue taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths of the air that circulated around his body. For that, he deserved every dollar and foodstuff on that train. The next stop was ours and we exited the subway car. Others had to stay and the survivor's guilt still haunts me. But I don't think I got out completely unscathed. There's a good chance I incurred some minor brain damage because to this day I cannot remember which one of the pre-approved oldies he was singing. Then again, I'm not sure it really matters. I would not stand by him. I would not lean on him. And I find it very hard to believe he has a girl.