monroe, homeless folk singer

i love the above-ground subways in nyc. the light coming through the windows and the city streaking by like a backdrop in a flintstones cartoon are a welcome change when you’re used to traveling in the dingy depths of a piss-smelling rat-infested tunnel. maybe that’s why i like riding the n r w and the 7 so much. it was in just such a place that i met monroe in queens.

i was on my way to a job when i first saw monroe. timidly shifting his weight from one foot to the other and swinging his arms as he sang an unrecognizable song with an ‘o brother, where art thou?’ air to it. really twangy with some yodels thrown in for good measure. he sounded horrific. and even if he was expecting money for his abysmal performance, he didn’t have a change cup!

from the moment i saw him, i wanted his picture. so i walked right up to him and started listening to him sing and pretended to enjoy it. bobbing my head, snapping my fingers and displaying a phenomenal white man’s under bite. excited by the prospect of a payout, he started singing louder (even though i was only a couple of feet from him). his singing didn’t improve in quality with volume.

so i yelled to him, “mind if i take your picture!?”

he put his hand up as if to say “don’t interrupt me while i’m singing.” his finger nails were long and dirty. “what a character”, i thought to myself. so i waited.

…and waited.

…aaaaand waited.

his song went on forever! i couldn’t get a word in edgewise between verses (of which there must have been a dozen, or so) without him putting up his filthy finger to hush me.

so i waited patiently, and he he finally stopped singing. but then he wouldn’t talk. he didn’t say a word.

“sir, would you mind stepping over here to your right?”

he nodded and stepped to his left.

“no sir, you’re other right, please.”

he had just sung a song for 5 straight minutes in perfect english, but i couldn’t elicit a verbal response from the guy. so i mustered the courage to grab him and put him in the good light, where he stood slack-jawed and slump-shouldered. the setting was right, but now i had to get the pose right. i really wanted those hands in this picture.

“sir, do what i do.”

i put my hand over my heart. he did the same. but then he put up his other hand and and just stared at me.


special thanks to the masterful jeff berkes for retouching this shot for me.

i gave him a dollar for putting up with me. as i walked away, i heard him start singing again. from the top.


~ by jacobbmurphy on November 24, 2009.

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