Every Thursday morning, I take the # 4 Train, an express on the Lexington line, from 125th to 86th. I walk down from there to see a shrink on 82nd. I hear every kind of music walking to and from the subway, particularly on the 124 below Marcus Garvey Park, and then some way below grade, on the subway cars; today it was two Mexican guys, a guitar and an accordion, the most awkward of instruments.
It’s hard not to hear compelling, often beautiful music in Harlem, because the basic industries are churches, bars, clubs, and restaurants. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, for example, I stand on my balcony and listen to the choir at the church that is 100 yards away. If I want to go out of my way, there are jazz clubs with no cover on 121st and 139th that feel like speakeasies—they feel illegal because the music is great, and ridiculously cheap. Then there’s the Lenox Lounge, almost any night.
But today, I was startled by the music at the 125th station as I ran down the stairs to catch the # 4 Train. I was in a hurry, so I didn’t want to stop. I did, though.
The old woman sat on the bench just inside the entrance with her belongings stuffed in a personal shopping cart. Eyes closed, head back, shoulders straight, just singing.
She sang joyfully, no sorrow and no accompaniment:
Oh Lord, I see Jesus
Oh Lord, I am alone
Oh Lord, I see Jesus,
Oh Lord, welcome me home.
I stopped at the top of the stairs leading to the express platform, her voice was so perfect that I had no choice except to listen. I was wearing sunglasses, so I could tolerate the tears. I couldn’t stand the old woman’s recognition. She saw me and yelled “Raise your hands!” I did that without thinking, but the commands that followed were more than I could bear. I couldn’t clap, and I wouldn’t clasp myself in my own arms as she urged me to.
As I hurried down the stairs, I felt like I had let her down. So I looked for her on my return to 125th, still whistling her tune and singing her verse, words I had never heard before. No luck.
Instead, I ran into a neighbor from across the street, she of the classical republican species that attends many meetings and distributes many petitions. She was breathless as always, as very busy people tend to be, what with all the serious requirements of citizenship weighing them down. I am told that I danced with her at the block party back in August; but then I am also told by the same neighbors that I had a more general good time that day, and I cannot verify their opinion by reference to any of my own remembrance.
I asked her if she had attended the recent block association meeting, which I missed because I was downtown visiting my girlfriend. “Of course!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to a precise summary of the agenda and the results, noting how she had voted. That took about five minutes.
Finally I asked, Did anybody speak to the issue of the rats? Did you?
“Oh no, I don’t speak at meetings. I’m a doer, not a talker. I try to get things done.”
Oh. Well, I’m a talker. I don’t do shit.
She thought I was joking.