The subway is tricky on weekends because that’s when the MTA repairs the tracks, especially on the lines below Penn Station. I guess they’re thinking the weekday commute to work is sacrosanct: fuck the tourists, or, I don’t know, let them experience the weird density of the place while they’re here.
So yesterday I allotted myself more time to get downtown, to save myself from the anxiety of jostling with Germans and Italians—they’re the predominant tourist type up here—who had just been to the Apollo Theater on 125th.
On the platform at 125th and Lenox, an old guy was holding a gym bag, green-lined with brown handles—there was music coming from the thing, somebody playing the horn. He wore sunglasses, sported a scraggly grey-streaked beard and a porkpie hat. He was a hipster out of phase, a visitor from an irretrievable past, a brother from another planet.
I stood next to him on the platform and sat down next to him when the 3 Train arrived. I just wanted to hear the music—I wasn’t looking for a lecture or a conversation. In my pedantic, academic way, I was trying, I admit, to identify the source, so I finally said, between 110th and 96th, “That sounds good.”
“You gotta listen. You know who that is? Nobody plays like that.”
“I wanna say Louis Armstrong, but I don’t know, it’s too contemplative, you know what I mean, the guy is thinking out loud.”
“Just listen. Best teacher I ever had kept sayin’ that.”
“I’m a teacher. That’s Miles, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s him. What do you teach?”
“I teach what I hate, I teach history, I can say that to you because I don’t know you.”
“I love history. This is the sound of 200 B.C., before Christ, you know, it’s the same music.”
“You can’t believe that, c’mon, nobody could’ve listened to this back then. They would’ve covered their ears.”
“No, don’t say that, you gotta listen. I’m 85 years old. Listen to this.”
I stopped talking. The old guy got off at 34th, said he was bound for Long Island.