I called him the “I Will Survive Guy.”
He was a short, scrawny man of indeterminate age, with shoulders always hunched over, whether due to poor posture or to the extreme cold, I could never quite tell.
It was difficult to discern what color he was because of the grime and filth that had blackened his face, hair, hands and tattered clothes. He had a distinctly aggressive odor about him so one could not help but be aware of his presence whenever he was around. And he always had a toothless grin in a gaping hole of a mouth with blackened gums.
I met him in the New York City subway, on the red line where the Number 2 and 3 trains ( the express trains) or the Number 1 and 9 trains ( the local trains, meaning, they stopped at all stations) plied their routes, from uptown Manhattan in Harlem all the way downtown to the World Trade Center towers in the Financial District.
I took the Number 1 or 9 train every morning from my Upper West Side station on 86th street, two blocks away from my little apartment on the West End. I disembarked four stations down at Columbus Circle on 59th street, a block away from Fordham University’s Lincoln Center-Manhattan campus, where I was attending graduate classes in business.
It was December 1999, the cusp of a new millenium. One bitterly cold morning, I took the train as usual on my way to school and encountered “I Will Survive” Guy for the first time.
It was the midst of morning rush hour and I was jammed cheek to jowl with other morning commuters. Almost everyone was dressed in suits, clutching their briefcases and copies of the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Some people were face-deep into the city’s favourite tabloid and everyone’s guilty pleasure, the New York Post: catchy headlines, lurid pictures and deliciously naughty gossip about the rich and famous on Page Six.
It was a particularly dreary, gray morning and everyone’s winter pallor and sour facial expressions matched my own.
Although I had just moved to the city, I already hated it. It was too cold, too loud, too dirty, too foreign.
I was homesick for my family in Cebu. I missed Hong Kong and my friends terribly. And I was glumly wondering to myself, what on earth had possessed me to choose a New York school when I’d had alternative choices in the more favourable climes of California and Arizona. I was cursing myself for not pursuing grad school opportunities in Barcelona, Spain, a school of which I’d actually visited the summer before.
The subway doors opened. Someone came in and into the car wafted a most peculiar, intensely nose-twitching aroma. The commuters around me bunched even closer together and seemed to be clearing a lot of space for the new arrival.
I glanced up and that’s when I saw him. Standing there in the middle of the subway car, with a little circle of space around him. He looked around and everyone, with typical New York attitude, just ignored him.
Everyone in New York ignores each other on the subway and in the streets but everyone seems to ignore the homeless bums wandering around the city with particular intensity.
All of a sudden, and to my great astonishment, he burst out into song and dance.
It was Gloria Gaynor’s disco tune “I Will Survive”, but done at an extremely rapid pace, the indistinguishable words all running into one another. It was like watching someone dance “The Cabbage Patch” fast-forward to a song being sung fast-forward by someone who was not only toothless but also did not even know the lyrics very well in the first place!
The toothless grin was flashing throughout this entire routine. The whole effect was extremely comical.
I had to look down at my feet and bite my lips because I could feel the beginnings of a smile on my face. And that just would not do. I was in New York. New Yorkers do not smile at each other.
He abruptly finished the song and as someone from the back of the car actually clapped, he bowed to his waist and said something like: “Hank you.”
And just as abruptly, toothless grin beaming, he launched into Brian McKnight’s ballad: “I Believe I Can Fly.”
That’s when I lost it, completely. I burst out laughing. He looked and sounded so darn funny! As I laughed, I caught the eye of a guy in a suit and spectacles across from me and he started laughing too. Before I knew it, everyone in the whole car was roaring with laughter. And it wasn’t even 9:00 in the morning!
The “I Will Survive” Guy, obviously pleased with himself, preened, got several pats on the back, pocketed some dollar bills and grinned his toothless smile to no end.
It was a classic New York moment.
From time to time, I would see him on the subway. Always got on the 1 or 9 train during morning rush hour. He seemed to favor the Upper West Side.
And it was always the same routine, rendered at the same breakneck fast forward pace. Much like life in the big city.
“I Will Survive”, always followed by ” I Believe I Can Fly”. Songs of hope, of picking up the pieces after loss, heartbreak or suffering. Of following your dreams, no matter what.
Songs capturing perfectly the soul of a city which I had hated in the beginning and later grew to love. Songs reflecting the spirit of its people, who, after experiencing absolute horror on one life-altering, deceptively beautiful morning in September of 2001, eventually started to heal in time and move on.
Songs about survival.
This is the first in a five-part series of personal narrative essays about New York City, dedicated to the victims and survivors of 9/11/2001. This writer can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her personal blog – The Bamboo Stiletto, http://bamboostiletto.wordpress.com
Diane Fermin Roeder is a reformed marketing communications expert in the hospitality and financial service industries. She enjoys being an expat’s wife and founding wordsmith of DFR+word.works, a consultancy specializing in content solutions and development for luxury hotels and resorts in China. She carved a 15 year leadership career spanning the Philippines, Hong Kong, the US, and China, with an American MBA to boot. Diane suffers from an incurable addiction to killer stilettos. You may to The Bamboo Stiletto (personal blog) http://bamboostiletto.wordpress.com and Follow tweets: https://twitter.com/bamboostiletto