And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around.
-- Dylan Thomas, "Poem in October"
The older I get the softer.
I sat on the bench, sorry for myself, and waited for the train that would take me to the next client. What a good guy I was, working the holiday. Strange how quiet it was, and the platform empty.
A mom came through the turnstile, with two boys: one about nine years old, talking, talking, very excited, something about robbers and how to foil them, the other boy smaller and quiet but squirmy. To the older boy Mom would say, Oh my, or That's interesting, while she managed the little brother with a nudge, a hand on the shoulder, a grab by the belt. Nothing wrong here. Everything under control. They sat at the other end of my bench.
A subway musician was setting up his keyboard, adjusted a stool, plugged in an amp, flipped a switch, played a few chords, ran a scale and strung an arpeggio, found a pulse. There was something familiar about it, easy, persuasive. My legs were moving. Not dancing, I don't dance. But the balls of my feet touched ground left, right, left with a little bounce, not to be stopped.
The notes snapped into a line. Ain't misbehaving.' And nobody was. The loud boy proclaimed his plan for truth, justice and the American way, as my feet lurched from side to side. Somehow we fit together, that loud boy and I, the little brother squirming over the bench between us.
I thought about Fats Waller and his songs, his blackness and his blueness, his innocence and wickedness. I thought how lucky I was to live in a world that Fats Waller had passed through, so that now on a subway platform I could be moved against my will by his song. So much trouble the world had gone to -- for this.
Then the mom did something genius. She took the squirmy boy by the hand and stood him up. She danced a little two-step with him, and he calmed right down. There we were, all of us together, harmonizing. No words. We weren't even looking at each other.
Our train was coming, but it was all fuzzy and there was something wrong with my specs, and I had to clean them off with my shirt as I entered the car, and before I could put them back on I had to wipe my cheekbones with the butts of my hands. Where did this water come from? What had I done to deserve this? When did I earn such beauty?
But I hadn't earned it, and didn't deserve it. It was a gift.
A message saying . . . though I cannot make it happen, it may happen.
I was raised to get things right; mistakes were shameful; they exposed to the world my laziness and poor character. Leave no stone unturned, says the voice, be sure to check and double-check, forget the easy parts and work the hard parts, there's no excuse for mediocrity, no dessert before you eat your spinach. But the light of the world shines through flaws, gaps and tiny abysses.
I breathe better as I unpin the corset of perfection, drawn so tight long time ago.
As I get older I get looser. As I get older, this kind of thing happens more often. I am permeable. I can't be fixed.