It’s Sunday, Easter Day, and I’m on the No. 1 subway train, the 7th Avenue line, under New York City.
I think we were somewhere near the 168th street station, near Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, when this young man came striding in carrying a small platform along with two big conga drums. He settled down diagonally across from me, right against the doors that open only at Express stops, unfolded the small platform into a seat, and sat down.
He greeted everyone in the subway car: Dominican parents with two little girls, a college student buried in her book, a man buried in a shaggy beard, another talking on his phone, all cultures, hues, and ages, a typical NYC subway crowd (when I lived in New York, I loved the subways). He wished everyone a Happy Easter, and for those who don’t celebrate Easter, joy and happiness in whatever they celebrate. Then he shut his eyes and began to drum.
I didn’t take my eyes off him. He bent his head low over the conga dreams, listening to an internal beat that may or may not have had any connection to the rhythms he was producing on the drums. The train whizzed by, shadows and lights appearing in the doors behind him. He drummed on and on, oblivious to the fact that the door he was sitting against was going to open at the next express stop and New Yorkers would rush into the train.
But the train slowed down and came to a stop—work on the tracks, the woman conductor said—so he sat there undisturbed, bringing us his very own Easter message.
I inhaled New York. The beat of the conga drums, the two girls in front of me begging for their father’s attention, sneakers of all colors on the floor, a large group of boys tramping down the car, heads buried in hoodies, everyone in their private world and still aware of the young man drumming aloud, maybe waiting for him to stop and ask for money.
But he didn’t stop, just went on drumming, as if he’d forgotten the purpose of playing on the train.
“I’m bringing you the sound of Easter,” he told us when he finally stopped.
I felt deep gratitude towards him. I often have trouble relating to ceremonies others share, the way in which everyone celebrates. Not for me the Passover Seder, with its special metaphorical foods and discussions of what freedom means. Freedom is deep and personal for me, very private and intimate. And not for me the Easter services—Tenebrae on Thursday evening, the fasting and dolorous silence of Good Friday, the anticipatory quiet of the intermediate Saturday culminating with lights and joy on Saturday night, and finally Sunday, with its mounds of song and flowers.
I prefer the more personal messages, the young man bent low over conga drums, making music out of his own heartbeats while I eavesdrop, trying to make out the brave new world he’s hearing and expressing.
I dropped ten dollars when he passed with his bucket; I don’t think he even noticed. The two Dominican girls approached him with big smiles on their faces, both with buck teeth hanging over their lower lips, each holding a quarter for him. He nodded and said thank you.
I came down to New York to meet up with friends, old friends. Also, to leave Bernie’s ashes on the grounds of Greyston. I will write more about that tomorrow. But I can’t forget that the visit started with the Easter and Passover message of conga drums reaching out to me from a very distant world, reminding me that the membranes separating us are as thin as could be.