“Vagabond Shoes”

16 Jul

We hoped our platform poet would sing and dance like Michigan J. Frog when the elevator doors opened again. Instead, he’s the same when the doors open: scraggly and sprawled on the floor, throwing shoes and enough f-bombs to make Quentin Tarantino blush. I glance around the platform.

I see a pink-haired Asian girl squash her American flag backpack to take a selfie with her neighbor, a passed-out drunk. Is that a loaded image? Yes, in so many ways, but this is real life. Two construction workers glare down at the platform’s poet, our strung-out teller of profanity and way-too-personal stories. The doors close, and the poet ascends to the heavens to only come back down again, without a break in the recitation.

“Surprised he hasn’t been picked up yet.”

“Nah, Jeff doesn’t work Fridays. Just Tuesday/Thursdays.”

“That must be nice.”

This is the opening scene for my friends Ryan and Willie. They arrived two hours early, and it’s Willie’s first time in New York. They are lucky enough to have this platform cast as the welcoming crew, and while it’d be nice to have a two-week workday, it’d also be nice to get home.

Two hours earlier, Ryan and Willie arrived at our “B’n’B” in Bushwick. To get to this tucked-away apartment, we walk past a grand dusty staircase, dodge the rancid mop bucket, pass through the back of a restaurant kitchen, and behind a storm door. They dropped their things and admired our kitchenette and our refrigerator and the claw-toe bathtub that sat quite defiantly in the middle of the apartment. A work of art. It was 12:30 in the morning.

Ryan’s leaving for South Korea in a month to teach English, so I had a research project for him.

“Let’s go get dinner in Korea Town.”

We go to Kun Jip, a late-night Korean eatery right in the middle of the din and crazy on 32nd Street. By 1:45, we’re tucking in the banchan, which are free sides that come with Korean entrees. Kimchi, garlic turnips, bean sprouts. Free sides. Free. Bojangles, take note.

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Photo by Willie Powell. Editing by Tommy Werner

While I’m determining the spiciest dish on the table, Ryan’s describing the rural village he’s going to live in, and Willie is taking the chopstick training wheels off, the food arrives. Ryan gets a tray of Korean BBQ beef and lettuce to wrap it in, Willie gets a gobdal bibimbob (a rice dish topped with beef, vegetables, and egg), and I got the shrimp kimchi jigae (a stew of spicy shellfish, tofu, and garlicky vegetables).

Kamsahamnida,” Ryan half-spoke, worried how his Kun Jip Korean may come across. Our waitress smiled.

Spiciness ensued, spoons arrived, and we bought a bottle of soju, a distilled rice liquor. We weren’t allowed to drink inside, so we decided we’d go for a stroll and sip when we got home. If that would even happen. Let’s jump forward a bit.


His eyes roll in the back of his head as his shoulder’s roll backwards. Teeters. Totters. Saunters. This guy wearing a tank-top is the perfect example of a good night. We’re putting the cart before the horse in trying to figure out how he got here, but are almost…jealous. We were not even a sip near getting to his level. Our soju remained in the bag, unsippable for now. We can’t hear his joke, but we can hear him giggling about the best punchline of the night, humor so subtle he’d have to whisper it. Though the Subway platform is hot, we’ll let him have the overhead fan to himself, out of respect or out of fear.

“L Traiiiiiiiinnnnnn,” he bellows and beckons, hoping for a magic trick during this magical evening of Korean food and booze carrying. I suddenly wonder how many people on the Union Square platform are gunowners.

“Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove,” we cracked as we were cracking up. Some girl gives a glare that could halt floodwaters and then freeze them.

“The next Brooklyn-bound train will arrive in 12 minutes.” Our friend, wait, our hero, moves like a Slinky to the platform: first his feet, then his torso rolls forwards. It takes one go-through of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” for him to reach the yellow waiting line; the train is still 9 minutes away. While at the line, he expectantly watches for the train, with the innocence of a puppy waiting for his master to come home. 3 minutes later, there’s an announcement.

“The next Brooklyn-bound train will arrive in 12 minutes.”

We are running out of songs.

Fortunately, the train does actually arrive with plenty of songs. As these doors open, a man blows a melodica, a keyboard with a straw. He covers up for our shrinking song repertoire, but instead of Led Zeppelin, it’s “Turkey in the Straw” for 30-second bursts. His songs are like a roulette wheel; as soon as I place my ear on what tune he’s playing, he switches to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” or “Happy Birthday,” or “Dixie.” Our hero is not amused.

Another announcement: “Attention passengers. After the next stop, Lorimer Street, the train will not stop again until Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue.” We look at each other with the same conclusion: we will end up in New Jersey or even Virginia before we get back to our charming “BnB” and its bathtub. Our stop, Morgan Avenue, is in the middle of these two stops, meaning we’ll either have to either hike a great distance or wait for the next L train, whenever that was going to happen. L Traiinnnnnnn, you’re not going to ever win again.

Our hero is also not amused. The melodica’s gotten to him, and he no longer is laughing. Even at his own jokes. He slinks over to the bar we’re gripping in the middle of the car. Swallows heavily. We huddle together like choir boys. He’s going to blow. Oh God.

The melodica player blows more into the straw, and our hero moves on to grip the car door’s handle.

“I. Hate…….Everything.”

While the train is racing to Brooklyn, or maybe even St. Louis, he throws open the door to the next car. This is it.

I read statistics about deaths on the Subway. I realize I’ve never seen a human being die. There’s a first time for everything, and I’m worried that our plastered and stringy-haired hero will be my first. This is it.

His fury storms off first, and he follows it into the next car, deciding to make new friends. The train slows, the melodica player bows and asks for tips, then follows our hero into the next car. Showtime.

By the time we get to the Morgan Avenue stop, the sun’s rising over Manhattan. The soju in Ryan’s hand is warm. We make it past the mop bucket, see the prep work for the restaurant’s breakfast service, and admire the tub on display before passing out.

I hope our hero’s home safe.


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