The following short story (sketch) comes from a collection I just wrote and finished editing called NEW YORK CITY MOMENTS. The character of Augustine appears in most of the ninety stories that compile the manuscript.
It was 5:00 PM on a Tuesday afternoon. Augustine had just left a literature class at Hunter College and was on his way downtown to meet his friend Martin at the Whitehorse Tavern. His professor had read from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the class spent an hour discussing the poem. While riding the shuttle train from Grand Central to Times Square, Augustine couldn’t get the Song of Myself poem out of his head. The vastness of it, the lyrical use of words to embrace all of life, and Whitman’s wise, but practical refrains teaching the reader to listen and look at creation. Augustine had no idea how to find that wisdom in the modern world. The density of cities, the crowded shuttle where people pushed and shoved each other to get inside the car; the deafening roar of the train, the grunts and farts, and the bleary eyed riders who put up with discomfort to get through the day. Where were Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the modern world? Augustine didn’t know.
When the train pulled into the station, he moved with the crowd onto the platform. Above the din, Augustine heard a high-pitched, rhythmic flute played by an Ecuadorian to hundreds of nameless faceless people marching headlong to the # 1 train or the “R” train or the “A” train or to any other train that would take them somewhere far from the Andean village the musician once called home; the rhythmic flute all but told Augustine: “Senor, I want to share my culture with you; my music; my life in Ecuador; I want to make a little money and send it home; Senor! You got some time; you can listen; you can buy this C.D. senor or give some money.”
The sound of the flute took Augustine into a world of dreams and reveries – a poet’s world in which greys and blacks and neon hues melded together. The quick movement of people no longer jarred his nerves, but inspired him to lean and loaf and listen to the flute’s voice become background music to the Time Square station’s hustle and bustle.
Augustine put a dollar in the musician’s hat and walked towards the Seventh Avenue downtown train.
Across the way, he saw a doll-like old man with a frozen smile, long gray hair, and wild demonic, black eyes, playing background music on a synthesizer. Well-crafted puppets moved in rhythmic, repetitive dance movements to the frenetic sound dispensed by his fingers. The strong atonal music, the life-like, yet garish dolls with large red painted mouths and bug eyes, in gypsy costumes, they moved in time to the music, and created a strange if not surreal impression on Augustine. He watched the manic puppets dance and gesture; and the old man, more like a statue than a human being – his hands moved, but the rest of his body was entranced, still, held hostage to the music’s hypnotic refrains, his smile, both sad and joyous at the same time, and permanently carved into his face. He was the father of this gypsy band, its choreographer and composer, and his children bobbed up and down and danced to the music.
Augustine put a dollar in a basket and continued to walk towards the number one train.
About thirty feet from the old man, a white powdered mime stood on a platform in front of a group of giggling children; the white powdered mime who blinked her eyes and created a sensation, who moved a finger and got children to roar with laughter; the white powdered mime’s silence spoke louder than the nonstop pit-pat of pedestrian footsteps.
If it wasn’t for Martin, Augustine thought, I could hang out here all day. He descended a flight of steps to the downtown platform.
Steel drums pierced the 5:20 P.M. roar of the number two-train that pulled into the station and beckoned indifferent, tired, rush hour riders to stop for a moment and listen. The Caribbean beat and underlying pop melodies made the unfamiliar island sound into music Augustine could follow. He leaned against a pillar, and quietly absorbed the early evening rhythms played out on a subway-stop in the heart of New York City; he “leaned and loafed” and listened to pedestrian footsteps and watched wayward performers. All of it reminded him of life’s vast and quite wonderful three ring circus – a modern day Song of Myself – homage to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass…