I get on the subway and find a seat I like; the one by the pole in the middle. It’s the Q line, so seats are organized as long benches along the car, not two- and three-seaters like on the B. I prefer these long benches; this way I don’t bump my knees with a stranger’s. There’s more space these days; it’s that time of year when winter turns to spring, and people are overly enthusiastic to get rid of their heavy coats.
A gentleman to my right is constantly fidgeting in his seat, obviously focused on something. I ignore it and just move his jacket out of the way so that I can sit. The car is semi-crowded, but not enough to make me feel claustrophobic. I reach for my book.
“Stand clear of the closing doors please” the robotic subway voice instructs.
The doors close but quickly jerk open.
“Stand away from the closing doors people! We can’t leave until you do” the conductor shouts via the speaker.
Following three rings the doors open and close in typical convulsions until they finally shut. We leave the station.
“Sorry about that” the gentleman interrupts as I start reading. He is middle-aged – in his late-forties to early fifties and African-American. He’s wearing a cap, has dark-shaded sunnies covering his eyes and a hoodie. I notice that his fidgeting earlier was due to his interest in a cut out newspaper article, which he has spread out on the empty seat beside him.
“It’s all good. No worries” I respond, anxious to get back to my book.
I find that in New York the entire concept of personal space is different from other places. It is counterintuitive and unnatural, but beautiful at the same time. Because of the population density, one is forced into others’ personal space quite often, especially while using mass transit. It is interesting how each person maintains some form of personalized bubble. A bump here and a scrape there are reasonable under certain circumstances, but anathema under others: New York rules. It has a familial sense, a kinship born of necessity, born of urbanization and population explosion, born of constant immigration and the dreams that are tethered to it, born of capitalism.
“No, it’s rude of me. Sorry about that” he continues in spite of me. “I’m sensitive to those things. Yesterday I sat on a bench and touched this lady’s leg by accident and she just went off. Damn she just kept going and going and all I could do was apologize and leave.”
“Naw man, it’s all good” I say. “We all inhabit this small island and need to be easy going about things like that. I appreciate it though.”
He pauses for a couple of seconds and looks at me, ever-so-slightly nodding his head. “I think about things; you know?” he says pensively. “If I make a mistake I think about it a lot and try to improve myself moving forward. Life’s all about that, you know?”
“Totally. Many people just go about their day without giving a shit about others. Especially in this town. Me me me. But you take a moment and reflect on it. That’s admirable.” I’m starting to like this guy. He is unassuming.
“Hey, what’re you looking at over there?” I indicate toward the spread out newspaper. Now that we’ve broken the ice, and my reading interrupted, I might as well chat with my fellow passenger.
“Meh, it’s the Knicks’ score. But forget about them this year, they suck. It’s all about Stephen Curry this year. He’s just killing it. He’s on fire. You know what? He’s more than on fire, he’s just an anomaly. He takes shots from four-feet behind the three-point line and sinks ‘em one after another.”
“I’m not really following the NBA this year” I say with a hint of shame. “But I’ve heard of his performance. Everybody’s talking about it. Wait just a minute though, I got an important question; I grew up watching MJ. You think he’s better than MJ?” I ask with an inquisitive, somewhat testy tone. Can any player be better than Michael Jordan? When I was a kid he was the absolute master. Or if you were a diehard Knicks fan like I was, the anti-Christ. But even though he kept handing the Knicks their asses on a plate, his performance was just so good it was impossible not to admire him. When Jordan was in his prime, he was unbeatable; he would simply shine like a god. The god of my youth.
“When I was young, Michael Jordan was a source of misery for me. Every time the Knicks got close, he’d knock ‘em down!” I continued my thoughts out loud.
“Haha yeah. Those were the days. So where’d you grow up?” he asks in a friendly tone. I notice the train is silent except for our chatter and the clickety-clockety train noises. I don’t care at all, I like it.
“I spent two years in the Bronx, then moved to 63rd and Broadway. But back then it wasn’t like it is today.” I find myself apologizing. “Those were dangerous streets. And the park was a block away, it was a scary place!” This conversation is bringing out a kind of New York pride in me that has been hidden in a drawer in my brain since forever. I find myself proud that I was here before all the hipsters and yuppies came from out-of-town and stole the real character of New York. Before Giuliani cleaned up the city with his broken windows policies. This guy knows what I’m talking about. He gets it.
“Oh, word? Yeah I know that area well. It was definitely not a safe place back in the 80s. Lots of crackheads. There’s a cul-de-sac a block away from there named after my great uncle. That’s where he used to live I used to hang around there a lot.” he says matter-of-factly.
“Who’s your great uncle?” My ears prop up like a dog’s at the sound of a whistle.
I’m shocked. I can hear the train moving slowly as I search for the right words. Monk is my favorite Jazz musician.
“You know they misspelled his name on the street sign. Fucking white people. It was up for years and they forgot a U in his name. I bet you they did it on purpose.” He grunts to himself and sighs.
I needed to sit and chat with his great nephew on a crowded subway twenty-five years after moving away from that apartment on 63rd and Broadway to find out I grew up a block away from where one of my idols lived.
The train slowly screaches, rolling up to a stop.
“This is 14th Street, Union Square. Transfer is available to the L, N, R, 4, 5 and 6 trains.”
It’s my stop. I should get off, but there’s no way I’m prematurely ending this conversation. Fuck it, I’ll hang tight and see where this takes me.
“You must be kidding me” I say. “Wait, you serious?”
“Yeah man. Thelonious was my great uncle” he says nonchalantly.
“Wow. Thelonious is my all-time favorite Jazz musician. I used to listen to his Riverside albums on repeat for days. You got some wicked talent in your genes, man! Wait a minute, is he on your dad’s or your mom’s side?” I am interested in the exact relation, but don’t want to appear as if I’m doubtful of the relationship.
“Well, Thelonious was married to Nellie Smith, the daughter of my grandmother’s brother. But we’d all hang out together as a family. We were very tight.”
“Wow.” I pause in disbelief. He’s not directly related to Monk and I hope my reference to his genes didn’t offend him. “Did you see Straight no Chaser? I love that movie.”
“No I never saw the whole movie. From the parts I did see though they did a good job. Except I didn’t like the way they presented Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. They made it out like her and Thelonious were a sort of couple. She was in love with him, no doubt, but there was never sex involved. Not to my knowledge anyway. Nellie wouldn’t have allowed that.”
“Yeah. A fascinating story. If I remember correctly, Nica was a rich white woman from the Rothschild family who left a husband and five children to devote her life to Thelonious, right?” I’m trying to impress him with my knowledge. It’s been a while since I met someone I could impress with my nerdy knowledge of Jazz. I’m enjoying this.
“Yep. It’s a strange sort of story. One of many interesting tales involving Thelonious. He was such a strange cat, a genius. People gravitated towards him, but he was just on another sphere.”
Two fellow passengers get up from beside me and face my new friend. One is a skinny white woman and the other a short black man.
“We overheard your conversation and just wanted to tell you we love Thelonious Monk. What a genius, that’s amazing” they both say in turn, starry eyed. I smile and try to make some sort of eye contact with them, but they are both completely entranced and don’t even acknowledge my existence. He smiles and thanks them. They get off as the train doors open.
“I’m so tired of people just being nice to me because of my connection to Thelonious. It gets old, you know?” I can see that. It’s like judging a person based on their appearance.
“So what was going on there, between him and Nica?” I refuse to let this topic go.
“I don’t know” he says with finality, which abruptly ends any prospect of continuing on this particular topic. I’m kind of ashamed I brought it up again. We’re three stops past mine. If I get off at the next stop, I can catch a return train to 14th street.
“Where are you getting off?” he asks me.
“Me too. You heading Uptown? We can continue our conversation.”
Alright then. Looks like Uptown it is.
The train creeks and croaks loudly, slowing down. The sound is deafening and I plug my ears with my fingers. The train finally reaches a complete stop.
“This is Times Square, Forty Second Street. Transfer is available to the N, R, 1, 2, 3 and 7 trains. Transfer is also available to the shuttle to Grand Central Station.”
We get off the train together and make a sharp left toward the staircase, crisscrossing through the crowds with a skip in our step.
“Who’s the best Jazz drummer?” he asks me. I feel this is an important question that I should get right, a test of sorts.
“Wow. Pretty good for a white guy. But nah you’re wrong, it’s Max Roach” he says with a chuckle.
“That’s arguable, man. Roach woulda been my second choice, and maybe Elvin Jones third.” I say in a louder voice, as we’ve been temporarily separated by a group of people who have weaved their way through us.
“Yeah. You got it though” he yells over the people. “You were in the ballpark.”
We reach the platform of the Uptown 2 and 3 trains just when a packed 2 train arrives. We hop in.
“What do you do for work?” he asks me.
“I’m a disillusioned scientist moonlighting as a documentary photographer and artist.” I’m not sure I like the sound of that. “You?”
“Wow, very cool. What’re you working on now?” I ask. I wonder if this could lead to some kind of opportunity we could collaborate on. Or maybe he could help me with my half-assed attempt at making a documentary that’s been on hold for a bit.
“Nothing. I’m always looking. But I can’t do the whole social media thing, so it’s hard these days. My niece on the other hand, she’s all into the social media thing. She’s on that shit 24/7. These kids. Her dad’s not really in the picture so I’m like her dad. A few days ago I was cruising around my neighborhood and saw her across the street walking with her earplugs all shoved in her ears and staring at her phone. I crept up on her and stood right in front of her before she noticed me. I let her have it. People need to be more self-conscious of their environment. It’s a dangerous world, you know? Especially for a teenaged girl! Plus, people should communicate with each other, not be enslaved to a gadget! It’s that openness that our society lacks and needs so bad!” He raises his voice and a few people turn around to check out the commotion. I feel a little uneasy.
Hey you want to hear another story about Thelonious?” he returns to his calm tone.
“So you know the tune Crepuscule with Nellie?”
“Of course. Love it.”
“He wrote that song on an airplane to Japan en route to a gig there. Isn’t that ironic?” he asks with a faint smile, but he seems to be talking to himself, in a world of his own.
The train slows down, again. I can see by his gestures that he’s preparing to get off. I decide to stay on the train. I want to head back already and continue my day and in any case, our conversation has run its course.
“I’m Yoav. What’s your name?” I ask him as he prepares to exit.
“Let’s get a drink some time and continue this conversation, Russell. What’s your number?” He dictates his phone number to me.
“Call me, I could always use the work” he says in a serious tone.
“Me too.” I respond with a resigned nod.
He smiles and gets off the train.
Photo of Art by Jilly Ballistic and Albert Diaz. Copyright Yoav Litvin