Thursday, March 27, 2008

These Songs of Freedom

I boarded the A train at West 4th Street to the sound of singing.

Hmmm, I thought, a fair voice, but kinda weak. Not very good for a busker, I doubt he makes much money...

Then I glanced to my right and saw that no, it was not a busker singing for spare change, but an older white guy sitting alone by the window, pointedly singing across the aisle towards a young black couple, who appeared to be listening. The words sounded familiar, but I couldn't place them.

As he finished the young man said "that's pretty good man, you write that?"

"No," responded the singer, "that's Woody Guthrie."

The train was noisy as always, and I had difficulty hearing the brief exchange that followed, but a moment later he had burst into song once more. This one reminded me of something one would have heard at a Union meeting back in the 1930s when labor first began to organize. Then the words "National Labor Party" floated across the car.

Well, now that's interesting... I thought, as it was followed shortly thereafter by a word that not so long ago would have struck terror in the hearts of everyone within earshot: "Communist."

He launched into another song and by the time he finished we'd passed a few stops and the train was decidedly more crowded. As our crooner began reciting the origin of the most recent song, the man who had taken the seat next to him said "hey he's good! He knows all the words and you get the history!"

What followed could only be described as an intellectual, well-informed, socio-political debate--punctuated by song--between two complete strangers.

In the middle of the A train.

On a Thursday.

I watched, transfixed, straining to hear over the rumbling of the train car, as the debate continued. "Do I believe in Communism?" Asked the singer. "I believe in organizing thousands of workers, to rise up and take power, and start making decisions for their own lives instead of having them dictated by ... billionaires like Michael Bloomberg!"

Yes! I wanted to leap from my seat and shout. Not because I agreed with his politics, per se, but because this scene, in and of itself, is what I love so very much about New York.

My fellow passengers, it seems, were not in agreement. A woman seated near him got up and moved to the empty seat next to me. As I shifted position to accommodate her, I brushed against the enormously fat man occupying the seat perpendicular to me. We briefly made eye contact and he mumbled "If he doesn't like the freedom, leave!" punctuated with a muffled snort and a knowing smile as if I was, of course, in agreement with his narrow-minded remark.

Because he didn't get it.

The majority of the passengers on that car did not get it.

What we were witnessing was Freedom. Not the "freedom" for which thousands of our soldiers have been shipped to Iraq, but real, honest to goodness, Freedom.

Fifty years ago he would have been thrown into jail--or upon the mercy of Joseph McCarthy, I'm not sure which is worse--before he had finished his first song.

But today, here and now, he could espouse his Communist ideals to a crowded train car and suffer nothing more than a few dirty looks.

That, my friends, is a freedom that too few on this earth can exercise; and as disgraced as our country has become, it is one example of our former dignity. One memory to cling to as the dust of the current administration continues to swirl.

I can only hope that, when the dust settles, that real freedom still remains.


distracted spunk said...

I read through that whole thing with a smile on my face. Beautiful, and strangely nostalgic for something I would never be able to experience because of my hearing. But thank you for sharing it, so I could. :)

Princess Pointful said...

That is why I live in the city-- delicious little interactions like this!

Deutlich said...

You and me both.

Jess said...

This is too cool. I love cities.

A Lil' Irish Lass said...

Ditto Princess Pointful.

cdp said...

This is an awesome post. I had a great train ride after a Saints-Falcons game in Atlanta when the car was chick FULL of Saints fans and one lone Falcons fan boarded the train right as the doors were closing. Everybody was drunk and messing with him but he was a total good sport and it ended up being the most fun train ride ever.

I really loved this story.

ana said...

Oh I love this story. And city trains.

Stephanie said...

So interesting. Only in New York.