by Sebastian Matthews
Just landed at JFK, about to head into Manhattan for the first time in over a year. Instead of flagging a cab or jumping into a van, I follow the signs to the AirTrain, three stops to the A line, joining a huddle of men and women on the cold and grey platform, wind shuttling in. What about that cold embrace speaks to my bones? What about this congress of strangers? The whole ride, letting the wider world in, not looking up, just listening to the bodies around me settle into the silence. Only glances allowed, brief encounters with faces. Train car slowly filling. Dipping down into the long dark tunnel. A young man enters the car and introduces himself. “I’m not here to bang you or bore you,” he sing-songs, “I’m here to sing to you, brothers and sisters.” Of course, no one looks up; nothing spectacular in this scenario. Though the man beside me leans down and opens his stance a notch, turns his face to hear our singer, nodding as he climbs the verbal steps up onto his soap-box. “I don’t do R & B. Don’t do Rap.” All I see for now are his red sneakers, his nervous strut back and forth. “People, I sing gospel.” The train pushes further through Queens. This young man’s flock heads into their days, wrapped up in headphones and handhelds, but I can feel the car tune into the sweet singing. “There is no friend like Jesus,” he belts. The congregant beside me nods a fraction. We’re approaching a stop. The song is through. There’s a moment to ad-lib, so a brief bio gets offered up: “I’m only 26. I’ve banged and boozed. I’ve seen it all.” My seatmate slips a few coins into the man’s hand as he offers up a little fist pump of thank you. A tired-looking transwoman watches me as I watch the young man, who adds, “I’ve been shot three times,” and someone laughs out loud at the back of the car. This makes our young pastor smile, and he turns to engage the commentary. I want to give the man a dollar, to offer up some thanks of my own. But I stop myself, not wanting to make my first overt act in the City be reaching for bills in a tight front pocket. The man drifts off to his next stage. My seatmate gets off at the next stop. The car fills with a new surge and in the next length of time I give my thanks by humming quietly in my body, letting in as much as I can, offering praise to this daily gathering of bodies, faces, lives, glances, mute stares. “I’m here to sing,” the young man said. It makes me want to cry. But I lower my head instead and fall deeper into my seat, letting the woman beside me settle into my shoulder. Soon, we’ll be under the river and I’ll step out into the great canyons of wind and light. But, for now, here, I will quietly sing into my own breath.
Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps, and two books of poems, We Generous and Miracle Day. His latest book, a hybrid of poetry and creative nonfiction, Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision, comes out from Red Hen Press in 2017. He is currently working on a “collage” novel.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • January 2017
Image header by Shiraz Chakera.