February 11, 2012
Subway Serenade

It wasn’t a typical Friday night. Instead of our usual charade—figuring out what to drink and what we would eventually half-heartedly watch on Netflix— I had suggested seeing a movie. After an early showing of The Descendants let out, we boarded the L train at Union Square back to Brooklyn. I’m sure there were available seats but we chose to ignore any vacancies and wrapped ourselves around a pole near the rear of the train car. (A major violation of proper subway etiquette—I know!)

We stood facing each other, ignoring everyone else on the train (another violation!). My boyfriend hadn’t shaved in days, and I couldn’t resist the rough texture of his partially grown-in beard. I began stroking his face with the back of my hand, when a man with a guitar boarded the train at First Ave. We were no longer alone.

The man had chosen his stage, hoisting the neck of the worn acoustic guitar inches away from my face. I tried to ignore his presence as I flirtatiously pinched my boyfriend’s cheek, but I could feel the man observing us. It didn’t take long—we were under the East River accelerating toward Bedford—when the man interrupted us, seemingly struck by inspiration.

“Excuse me,” the older man said intently looking at the two of us. I tried to avoid eye contact as I turned my glance in his direction and my boyfriend turned his head the other way, ignoring the man.

Relentless and oblivious to our non-verbal cues of disinterest, the man politely repeated himself. “Excuse me, sir,” he said directly speaking to my boyfriend. “What’s your name?”

“Matt.”

“You’re a lucky man, Matt,” the performer said as he turned his guitar toward me.

"And what your name, my dear?" He interrupted before I could respond. “My name is Darryl,” he said, pointing to himself.

"Lindsey," I replied, letting my guard down.

"Matt and Lindsey. Lindsey and Matt," the man repeated. "May I play a song for you?"

His approach was certainly more engaging than other subway performers. Most burst through the doors, filled with hope that one generous soul with toss a few cents or a dollar in a hat after unenthusiastically playing the same song car to car. Some say thank you as they collect their earnings, but most just wave hats or guitar cases in a rider’s face before hopping to another car at the next stop. The worst offenders are the mariachi bands—usually a guitarist singing Spanglish accompanied by a loud accordion player. I’ve become accustomed to adjusting the volume on my iPod when I see these bands enter the train. But Darryl’s demeanor encouraged us to say yes to his proposal.

The strings on his guitar were beyond repair,  and as he strummed the first chord it was clear that his guitar hadn’t been tuned in years. Maybe I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time, he sang, softly. A smile spread wide across my face. Like his guitar, he couldn’t carry a tune but he knew his audience. I was smitten. Not by the old man—by the setting. New York City transit is not the most romantic place on Earth, but at that moment it felt like we were the only two people on the train being treated to a private performance from Darryl.

Baby I’m amazed at the way you’re with me all the time, he continued, almost whispering the lyrics. “One more verse and I’ll leave you two to your business,” Darryl said. “Because three’s a crowd.”

As he began the last verse I glanced around the train, looking for reactions from the other riders. All were unfazed, most likely relieved that the man had not stood by them on the train.

I pulled a dollar out of my wallet and slipped into the guitar’s sound hole. “Thank you, Lindsey,” Darryl said interrupting his performance. I lovingly looked at Matt. There was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be than under the East River listening to a stranger serenade us.

Baby I’m amazed at the way you help me sing my song, you right me when I’m wrong. Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you.

"Matt, you’re a lucky man," the stranger told him once again as he finished up.

"She’s alright," Matt replied sarcastically.

"No, she’s wonderful," Darryl replied. "You two have a great night now."

He walked to the center of the car looking for another interested train rider, but I suspected the performances that followed couldn’t compare to “Maybe I’m Amazed.” While amateur it was at best, it was meaningful to its listeners, and I’m not sure if Darryl even knew the extent of its meaning. I opened my heart to a stranger trying to make a buck on the train when I could have tuned him out. It was the most positive experience I’ve had on the subway and a refreshing reminder that as the years pass, New York will always amaze me.

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