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The Clown of God

May 3, 2012
Astoria bound N train makes the classic approach to Queensboro Plaza, view of Manhattan skyline behind

Image via

We are on the N Train at 7:11 P.M. on a clear Wednesday evening.

We emerge from the tunnel beneath the bridge at 59th street and swing toward Queensboro Plaza. The train is quiet, nearly empty at this time. Few people are standing. The weeknight rush is over.

At Queensboro Plaza we meet the seven train, that indefatigable midtown shuttle with its sights set far beyond Grand Central terminal toward great green swaths of New York City’s largest borough. The Jackson Heights, Woodside, Flushing bound seven train. Is it a contradiction that the train’s placard indicates its end points as “Times Square, Manhattan” and “Main Street, Flushing”? They are the ends of two opposite universes.

We are engrossed in our smartphones. We are lifting our purchases out of three or four different shopping bags. What a beautiful newborn’s flowered spring dress. We are dozing. We are texting Asian characters. We are engrossed in a novel or a self-help tome. We are hunched over, our eyes are puffy, we are sagging, we are sleep-deprived, we are exhausted. Another workday in Manhattan has come and gone.

As the train curves away from Queensboro Plaza, the skyline recedes and we arch our necks to see the sunset glinting off of midtown highrises, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building. Across the river, Manhattan is a fortress from which we retreat on our quiet N train.

And then–

A dash of sound. A splash of music. An energetic injection. We all turn our heads except the round banker in her bright red dress.

None of us noticed him when he boarded the train, not even when he placed an electric keyboard on the floor and squatted down over it. Now we can see only the top of his head, a black circle that doesn’t move, hovering above a green army coat and the fingers. His hands are wide and large with long fingers. As the music goes on, his fingers are all we can see, look at, or think about.

We are transfixed, but not all of us obviously so. The waifish young woman in black printed tights and grey ballet flats, worn under a dress and coat best described as nondescript, is the most self-consciously captivated. She looks up from her tablet reader as soon as the music begins, and looks away almost as quickly. But she soon glances back at the crouching musician, her face an open display of curiousity and fear, beneath her limp, dirty brown, once blondish hair. She eventually lapses into staring straight ahead attentively, neither at the musician nor at her tablet.

The dozing Asian woman in a car coat and narrow, tight grey pants continues dozing. The overweight black woman hunched over the metal poles at the end of the bench does not look. The texter continues texting, and the Indian woman with all of her purchases mounded in front of her continues speaking rapidly on her cell phone. The red banker scrunches up her pert nose behind black and green plastic framed glasses and scrolls aggressively on her iPhone.

But a young woman in black pants and a black jacket can’t help smiling compulsively, even as her cheek muscles do a funny little dance to contort herself back into the New York grimace. And a tall young man with lots of brown hair, wearing light-colored 90’s jeans and a black leather jacket, is bopping his head up and down, tapping his knees with his hand. He’s reaching into his pocket to pull out a few crumpled singles.

The music continues. We arrive at 39th Avenue. The doors open and close. No one from our end of the car exits. No one enters. Our musician is pounding the keys with fiery passion, then tickling our ears with fast and light notes. His hands are everpresent. Everywhere.

At 36th Avenue, the dozing Asian woman has awoken and watches the scene intently. The hunched-over black woman has turned her gaze toward our musician, and the 90’s pants man has dug into his jeans pocket a second time, emerging with a few more crumpled one dollar bills to join those he holds already in his fist. An unobtrusive German-looking fellow with wire-rimmed spectacles, who had been assiduously reading the Wall Street Journal, observes with a faint trace of a smile flickering around his lips. The tablet reader has given up her internal battle. She watches with unguarded interest.

We approach Broadway and the piece reaches its climax. A thrilling mountain peak of song. A crash. Then a few birds’ chirping, light, sweet, and free.

It is over.

The first to break into applause is the 90’s jeans man, our musician’s number one supporter from the beginning. But almost as quickly, the red banker looks up from her iPhone with astonishing alacrity. She looks over at our musician with a bright, encouraging smile, which lifts her face out of the heavy load of care it had worn. Suddenly, shockingly, she is beautiful. We are all clapping, smiling, even the sleeping woman, even the spectacled man.

And we all open our wallets, reach into our purse or pants pockets, and prepare to hand over bills to our musician.

He rises quickly from the keyboard, acknowledging the applause with a quiet, sheepish smile. In one deft motion he lifts the keyboard off of the floor and gathers himself. He brings out a small tin cup with a handle, which a Shakespearean actor might pretend to drink ale from onstage. Eager bills are curled and folded and inserted into the tiny cup.

Physically, he bears resemblance to Tin-tin or Giovanni from Tomie DePaola’s The Clown of God. His hair is shaggy, falls over his eyes. His skin is vaguely tanned and freckled. His wide face is open, his eyes unreadable, calm, quiet. He says nothing as he walks past us, tin in hand, in an agressive teenage boy’s gait.

But in us, he stirs an uncommon, hardly recognizable sentiment.

We smile.

The Clown of God, an old folk tale of a poor but exceptional juggler, turned into a classic illustrated children's book by celebrated children's book author/illustrator Tomie DePaola

2 Comments leave one →
  1. love,mom permalink
    May 3, 2012 1:19 pm

    tears in my eyes….awesome

  2. Gma Nessa permalink
    May 3, 2012 1:29 pm

    Wonderful, my love. You are a great writer! Gma

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