I board the 8:34am BART train at Fruitvale Station. The car is packed but I’m able to push my way through and grab onto a hanging strap away from the doors. If there are no delays on the line I should reach Civic Center Station at 8:57. And if I maneuver my way to the car nearest the up escalator, and if I speed walk through the crowded station, am able to avoid stepping in all manner of mysterious liquid and solid along the way, then tap dance up the 48 steps to Market Street, I might make the 9am express line to my office on Townsend Street, eight blocks away. I run through this math in my head as the train lurches toward Lake Merritt. I click the play button on my iPhone, close my eyes, and sink into the latest This American Life podcast episode. Ira Glass’ nasal drone calms my nerves and helps me forget that my face is within inches of five different armpits. I thankfully am not a germaphobe, but even so, I remind myself not to touch any place on my body until I can fish out my hand sanitizer. I take only shallow mouth breaths to avoid inhaling any aromas I fear might linger in my nostrils (and my clothes).
This is my usual morning commute.
Only on this particular day I seem to have forgotten my headphones. I’ve been on a social media fast, and I’m not willing to break it to occupy these newfound minutes mindlessly tapping through Facebook. No, I will stand here and simply keep my gaze forward. Observe the rainbow assortment of individuals sharing the crowded train ride with me. I scan the car to see if anyone else has empty ears and device-free hands. Just two older Asian ladies with wide-brimmed visors talking to each other. I decide that doesn’t count.
I pull my cell phone from my jacket, twice, out of habit, then quickly shove it back in my pocket, as if attempting to disguise an illegal activity. The train empties slightly, then re-fills at Lake Merritt Station. It’s not quite a can of sardines — more like a box of cereal: contents shifting to adjust to the size of the container.
At the far end of the car I hear a man’s deep voice booming: “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen! I have a son who needs medicine.”
Oh great, another guy trying to suck money out of us hardworking commuters, I think, and, I imagine, so do many others. I can feel a communal exasperated energy, watch people glance up from and then quickly back down to their devices, effortful attempts at ignoring this “intruder.” As the man heads in my direction, I see he is a slight, middle-aged African American man, his red flannel shirt and dark blue slacks hanging off him as if being pulled down by weights. He is holding an acoustic guitar in front of his reed-thin body as he navigates through the crowd. He stops right beside me and I see that the guitar strap is a shredding loop of twine. He speaks again: loud, but not aggressive. A performers voice.
“I’m going to play a song for you, and if you like it, I sure would appreciate anything you could spare. My son appreciates it too. God bless.”
I don’t make eye contact with the man at first, partly because he is so close, but also because I’m pretty sure I only have 20s in my wallet, no small bills, and realize I cannot give him anything. The thought of tipping this man 20 dollars doesn’t occur to me. As if there’s some sort of unspoken busking payment rule that I have always blindly followed.
The guitar and voice begin together and it only takes me about five seconds to realize that the man is playing the Fleetwood Mac classic, “Dreams.” It’s my favorite song from their Rumours album and this guy is giving Stevie Nicks a run for her money. While at the same time pulling off some truly intricate Lindsey Buckingham guitar licks. On a beat up old acoustic. His wizened, weathered face is a foot and a half from mine and it reads like a roadmap of decades of struggle.
He bends his head to the side as he attempts the high notes on the line, “Who wants to wrap around your dreams,” and he nails it. After a minute of watching this man embody the emotional power of the song, I reach into my inside jacket pocket, check my wallet and find that I have a ten dollar bill. I pull it out and hold it tightly in my palm, then turn to watch the man continue on with the song. When I see him turn back to face me, I drop the bill into a hat he has placed by his feet. Without breaking the pace or mood of the song, he smiles and sings “thank you,” while looking directly into my eyes, incorporating the words into the lyrics. I am overcome with a feeling of deep empathy laced with a heavy dollop of guilt, and the incongruity of these emotions makes my face twitch.
He finishes, “When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know. You will know. Oh, whoa whoa, you’ll know.” The guitar strums its final notes.
I’m the only one who claps.
A young African American woman with an infant in her arms, seated on the handicapped bench, reaches into her purse and gives him a dollar. He thanks her, then me again and pushes his way to the other end of the car. I don’t see anyone else offer him any money.
We arrive at West Oakland station and he’s gone.
Now here you go again, you say
You want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost