On the subway going uptown yesterday, a man got on with the crowd at 34th Street and when the train started moving again he gave his version of a familiar spiel: “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I am not doing this because I have any kind of problem with drugs or alcohol. I never imagined myself becoming a beggar, and had I any other choice I would not be doing this. I’m asking you for whatever you can spare because I have a family here in the city and this is the only way I have to make any money.”
He was forty-something, with a trim gray beard and short-cropped hair and wearing a tan overcoat that he held closed at the neck with his fist. “Anything will help out,” he said. “A penny, a dime, or a folded dollar bill.” He walked through the car and his voice got a little rougher. “Yeah, okay! You all know what it is, right? Yeah, he got a promotion, that’s right! They wanted to say that I’m on security detail. That’s what they said! I’ll tell you what. They just wanted me down here in the subway! That’s right! But I haven’t got a nickel. That’s the truth. I haven’t got a nickel! I haven’t got a nickel and any one of them who tells you something different is a LIAR.”
The train stopped at 42nd Street and he got off with the big wave of people that poured out, the way it happens at 42nd Street, and his last words hung in the air as crowds of other people poured in, oblivious. Something about him was different from other train beggars, I thought, but it took a moment to figure out just what the difference was. And what it was, I realized, was his diction. He had perfect, precise, impeccable diction. And it was not just the diction either, but the way his words came together when he said, “I haven’t got a nickel!” That little sentence and the way he pronounced it and everything else he said made me think of Jimmy Stewart. I did not think he was pretending; he wasn’t. But everything about him somehow brought to my mind a play, written in the 1950s, about a man with a lot of troubles.
One evening some years ago I was walking to see a play in a little West Side theater in Hell’s Kitchen, near 10th Avenue. All of sudden I heard screams coming from a three or four story tenement building across the street from where I was, and someone shouting, “I’ll kill ya! I’ll kill ya!” Another terrible scream followed and I stood there, paralyzed on the sidewalk. I looked around for a pay phone, thinking: My heavens! Someone has just been stabbed or worse in there! There was not a single other person on the street, but in the next block over I could see the yellow and red awning of a bodega and a pay phone out front, and I thought: I better hurry before the killer comes canon balling out that door and sees me standing here! And I actually felt the hairs on my neck stand up. I started to walk, very fast, but at that moment there were more screams, and then: “I’ll kill ya! I’ll kill ya!”
It was exactly the same thing, happening again. I stopped and listened. I heard a woman’s voice say, “Could you put more emphasis in there when you say that line? I’ll kill ya! I’ll kill ya! OK? Let’s do it again.” And then the scream came. I felt a tremendous relief. I walked on, very glad that I had not called 911. How real that seemed, while I stood there truly believing that I was overhearing somebody being murdered in a crummy tenement just like something I might read in the Post. The man on the train I think was probably the real thing, just a fine elocutionist not taking his pills.
A few weeks ago on the downtown number 1 train a man beside me, who looked perfectly ordinary, suddenly leaned forward and said to the a man across from him, “You got somethin’ ta say? You want to reach in my pocket? You gonna stare at me?” His voice was loud and full of menace. The man across from him got up and moved down a few seats. The man next to me shouted: “Yeah, he’s lookin’ at ME! This whole train fulla sex perverts and homosexuals and he’s gonna look at ME? Yeah, he’s the one. Are you a sex pervert, sir? You a homosexual? “Cause I know I’m not!”
The whole train glazed over. The lady across from me stared into space but I saw one of her eyebrows rise. I was glad when the man got off the train and I think everyone else must have been too. I thought about my friend Charlie Schick, and how, when he was in a Tennessee Williams play a month ago, he took the train in his makeup and costume. The makeup made him look like an old man in ratty clothes, and he carried a cane that had cracked and been repaired by winding duct tape around it. He sat on the crowded train like that. An old lady got on and he got up and offered her his seat. The old lady said something like, “Well, you old too, and you got a cane, so you sit yourself back down.”
Charlie found that lots of people believed the makeup. In a bodega somebody called him “Pops.” He went home in the makeup and decided to knock at the door and see what Regina would say. She’s his wife, but when she looked through the peephole and saw him, even she didn’t know who he was for a minute. I saw Charlie like that in the play, and it seemed to me he was just made for Tennessee Williams.