I was sitting in an aisle seat on the train. Typical commute mode. Book in hand, headphones on, listening to D’Angelo’s third album. Had to give Kendrick a rest. It’d been on repeat since its release. Basically, I was minding all of my own business, as usual.
A strong smell knocked me out of my literary and auditory bliss. It was a mixture of fresh piss, stale piss, “outside” and feces with a top note of week-old funk. It punched me in the face so hard that my head recoiled. As my eyes popped wide open at the olfactory offense, I looked up and saw the cause of the stink.
He was a maybe 70-something-year-old black man. Hard to give a good estimate since the streets age you so much. I’d seen him around on the A train numerous times over the past couple years. All those other times he was curled up on a seat, making himself as small and invisible as possible as he slept or silently rested, never saying a word.
But this time, he seemed animated, jovial even, smiling as he talked and made his way down the aisle of the train. I turned down the volume on my headphones and listened.
“Heeeey! Can you spare some money? I sure could use it. Hey now! Got a dollar for me?,” he said as he smiled at the weary travelers who parted as if invisible ushers were clearing a path for the man. It’s amazing how much space New Yorkers can make when they’re trying to get away from a stench or an accidental touch. He wore a dirty knit sweater that probably used to be cream and hole-riddled green trousers with dark stains in places that indicated where the feces smell originated. He was barefoot, but his feet were so worn and leathery, they almost looked like shoes.
He pulled a tuft of my hair again and said, “Give me that hair!”
I directed my eyes back to my book, lest he think my eye contact indicated a forthcoming dollar and that’s when I felt a slight pull on my afro puff that sat atop my head.
“Give me that hair,” he exclaimed. I looked up at him and he looked back down at me smiling like an uncle playing a game with a toddler niece. He pulled a tuft of my hair again and said “Give me that hair,” seemingly waiting for me to respond in some positive way.
I didn’t have a positive response, so I just shook my head at him and moved over to another seat. He kept going on his jolly begging tour.
Normally, I’m 10 types of annoyed when it comes to people getting out of pocket about my hair, but this time, I was more so sad for him. I don’t know how many times I’d seen him, I had never heard his voice or seen him smile. He’s obviously in need of help and it seems he still hasn’t gotten the right kind yet. Maybe he will soon.