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Subway Lifer: The Thank-You Man

PUBLISHED: October 29, 2013

Photo by Bill Hayes

Editor’s note: The following post is the second in a series on living in New York. Read the first post, Subway Lifer.

One evening last summer, I headed out to see a friend’s band at a bar in Brooklyn, not the kind of thing I’d normally do with work the next day, but how often does one have a friend who has a band playing at a bar on a Thursday? Just outside my front door, I crossed paths with a tall black man wearing a black suit and tie and riding a silver bicycle—a picture of elegance, an angel on Eighth Avenue—and sensed I’d made the right decision.

The subway car was as packed as at rush hour. Face to face with a kid with his nose in a Kindle, it struck me that sometimes what one gets—and gets to keep—on public transportation is not an experience but an unforgettable expression. When the subway came to a stop, snapping the kid out of whatever world he was in, he looked at once startled, confused (what stop is this?), anxious, irritated, and finally, relieved. His face went blank, he returned to his reading, and I was left to marvel: This kid had no idea he was born a century too late to be a silent-film star.

I got out at Bedford and began following the directions I’d jotted down earlier. A main street had been blocked off—I don’t know why—so now the directions no longer made sense, and I didn’t have a map app or GPS on my phone. I took my bearings. Something in the air smelled like summer from my childhood—mown grass, gasoline, the dirt of a baseball field. I heard the crack of a bat hitting a ball, and I followed the sound.

I took a left, then a right. At the end of the street, I spotted a guy sitting on a couch positioned on the dock of a warehouse. I approached. His feet were up, two beer bottles were at his side. This looked like the reward at the end of a long day.

“Nice night,” I commented.

“Yeah, just taking it all in.”

I looked over his shoulder at the jumble of boxes and machines, trying to make out what this place was. He told me it’s a bunch of things—a foundry, a forklift repair shop, artist studios, storage. I asked if I could take a look. He didn’t answer right away; he was considering the request. I thought he’d say no. Finally: “Sure, just…be careful.”

Now I was really curious. I hopped up. The farther in I went, the more interesting it got—a junkyard of seemingly useless stuff, it spoke of broken machines and dreams and failed inventions and road trips that ended with shot carburetors. The scent in the air was of dirt and engine oil and sweat.

I didn’t linger, not wanting to outstay my welcome. Reallycool,” I said as I hopped back down.

“Thank you,” he replied. He took a swig.

I looked at him. He seemed lost in thought. I wasn’t sure if I should say what I wanted to say next, but, what the hell: “And that’s a good smell.”

“Thank you,” he said.

I loved that he took this for what it was—a compliment on his patch of the world, odors and all. I asked him directions to the club, and he obliged. I wasn’t far off.

Hailey and her band were fantastic. They played as if they were in a stadium, not a two-bedroom-sized bar. I stayed too late and had one more beer than I should have. When I left, I passed by the warehouse. The Thank-You Man was still there, accompanied now by two other people and several more bottles of beer.

“You’re still here,” I said, not knowing what else to say. All three looked at me calmly, openly, as if thinking: Of course we’re here, where else would one want to be?

“Yeah,” he answered, “just making sure everything is operating correctly.”

“I feel safer already.”

“Thank you,” he replied.

I said goodnight, and the three said goodnight in return.

As I walked back toward the subway, I looked at the sky and there were great white cumulus clouds visible. Bright clouds at night, backlit by the moon, have always thrilled me. They seem so surreal, and yet make you feel very much like you are part of a planet, part of a universe, not just in a random city. Then I did something I do sometimes when maybe I feel a little lost or need to remind myself of exactly where I am in my life: I sort of clear away the junk and do a quick metaphysical inventory:

“Consciousness that this is a planet,” I whispered to myself, “and of the sky and the clouds.

“Consciousness of my mother, who loved clouds and who died a year ago tomorrow.

“Consciousness that I am lucky to be here.

“Consciousness that I got myself here.

“Consciousness that I am thankful.”

Read the next installment:  A Fisherman on the Subway


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Barbara Sneva's picture
Barbara Sneva · 9 years ago
Hi Bill, Once again I was sent this most beautifully written and touching post by who else your loving sister, Patti. While I enjoyed the entire piece, the part that really made me smile was your “Consciousness” statements. The reason…they sound just like something I have hard many times from Patti. She, like you, is thoughtful and reflective as well as always…Thankful! I above all love that about her. Thank you for your reflections, they are a joy to read. Hoping you have continue good health and joy. Barb

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