He had one leg.
My head had been full of poetry, art, and lofty ideals the whole morning, and I was in that state of fake joy that irremediably comes after a good lunch, a good book and a good morning, the one that vanishes quickly at the first blow from the real world, which usually comes after a couple of days of daydreaming. I was relishing the prospect of an afternoon of leisure, when I was finally gonna write what I had wanted to write for some time now; my manifesto, as I secretly (and rather pedantically) called it.
But not this time. This time all that joie de vivre was going to vanish in record time.
For, you see, he had one leg.
Trinity Sunday, complete with that funny joke during the homily that I had heard before, exactly one year ago: “I remember our professor in the seminary,” Father was saying, “‘Once you’re priests, you’re gonna have to say a sermon during the Feast of the Trinity’ he told us, young novices. ‘If you preach for more than five minutes you should stop. Chances are you’re already preaching heresy'”. Everyone laughs.
Going back to the Tridentine Mass after months away from it was magnificent. Nothing like incense, gregorian chant, mantillas framing beautiful faces and lots of wimpy, loudly crying children from large families to make you love life again. Oh, and throwing away all that crap you’ve been carrying around for weeks, too. Truly invigorating.
After the Sacrifice and in a whim, I walked a different path than usual and stumbled upon the annual greek festival at the Orthodox church around the corner. So it truly has been a year now, I told myself. I wonder if they’ll recognize me. Of course I went in. Who can say no to greek delicacies? Thankfully it seemed that none remembered me and so I decided to treat myself and have my fill of that tasty food of unpronounceable names. Stay clear of the ouzo, I thought, wisely.
It is strange, how repeating experiences can be so different. Like a half-baked déjà vu. The locale was the same, the food was the same, and those in charge of it too, but something felt out of place. The day was gray instead of bright, the musicians weren’t there yet and the church itself was closed, so no kissing of icons this time. I was missing people. Different times, different company. Different everything.
To avoid brooding (something on which I’ve become somewhat of an expert) I went inside and asked for an espresso. Greek style. I ended up chatting with the ladies pouring the coffee, delicious thick accents tickling my ears that forced me to lean forward and struggle with the throng of words rushing out of those mediterranean mouths. We talked about friends, and Crete, and moms and their particular styles of upbringing. “I grew up in a farm”, one of them said. “Mom used to call me ‘donkey’ whenever I was doing something bad, and slap me in the hand”. “Latino moms do the same” I said, laughing as I remembered “el cinto”, and we high-fived.
“It’s been five years since I left Greece”, and a sad smile told me of countless stories of home, filled with the smell of the sea.
I sat by Copley Square, with birds and trees and concrete for company and tourists walking from here to there, taking selfies, speaking all kinds of languages and laughing in one. And opened my quarterly and read a story of loss and love and death, and how someone can be Home. A real tearjerker, but an honest one. Dammit.
Next an essay about poets and how to think like one. Apparently you must first observe the world. Don’t worry about getting it right. Just see. So I did, but a male pigeon was trying to seduce a damsel bird, puffing up and chasing her unsuccessfully all over the park, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Typical pigeon, I told myself, and again I had to think of something else. Sometimes observing is a little too much to ask.
It started to rain.
It struck me in a particularly powerful way, I don’t know why. I had seen cripples before, obviously, but something was different this time. Moments before I had been walking my way through the moving maze of bodies and faces that come in and out of Park Street Station, looking at this or that pretty girl as I happily hummed a tune I can’t remember now; and all of a sudden, just downstairs by the metro Red Line, he was there.
On a wheelchair, with a microphone attached to it and close to his mouth, a guitar in his hands, a bucket of sorts near his foot, which rested clumsily on a tambourine. Sporting a baseball cap, a grey old t-shirt, and with only one leg. He probably wasn’t even fifty.
“My mom, your grandma, always gives money to musicians.”, I remembered dad telling me once, long ago. “She says they’re her colleagues.” So I unplugged myself from my earphones, I followed grandma’s example, nodded at a barely muttered “thank you” and I leaned against a brick pillar, to listen. As if I had earned the right to.
He started to play. A simple, nice rock ballad, accompanied by a voice that at times went off-key but that was true and honest and brave.
One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn…
Maybe he was a veteran? Had he “served his time in hell”? Had he seen war up close, what man can do to man? Did he lose part of him there? Did he believe what he fought for? And is this how his country repays him? Nobody hires a cripple.
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn.
Maybe he had an accident, Perhaps, a blue collar worker, he lost his leg in an accident. Perhaps he had an accident.
A beautiful blonde woman came to him and put some money in the bucket and a smile on her face. She didn’t stay.
Nobody wants to blow,
Nobody wants to be left out, uh-huh.
Or maybe he caught a sickness. Maybe he caught a terrible sickness, and they chopped his leg off. Better crippled than dead, isn’t it?
You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there
But, sure, you can’t stay ‘cause you been somewhere else.
I was staring. I could spy his gaze, directed at me every couple of verses or so. But I couldn’t help staring. He was focused in his singing. Was he annoyed? By some random guy looking at him fascinated by him, watching him pull notes from his guitar and words from his strained voice? Was he angry? Hardened by day after day, maybe year after year of passersby pretending not to see him, not to hear him, hurrying away from his presence, like people fleeing a leper.
You can’t cry ‘cause you’ll look broke down;
But you’re cryin’ anyway ‘cause you’re all broke down.
Or was he embarrassed? By the little money I gave him? By his not-so-great musical abilities? And if that was the case, why was I blushing? Why was I reddening, suddenly looking at the floor or at the ceiling, away from him and from that pair of healthy, fancily dressed legs that hold me in my place, that were just starting to shake as if, ashamed, wanted to leave me?
It’s a family affair,
It’s a family affair.
It’s a family affair,
It’s a family affair.
The last verse he sang it in a powerful voice, with a terrible cry, a cry that refused your pity, if you were insolent enough to offer it: he was no beggar, but an artist. His eyes shut, his lips so close to the microphone they kissed it. He cleaned it afterwards with his hand.
A gust of wind indicated that my train had arrived. I walked towards it—for, you see, I have two legs—and entered the car.
I turned around a couple of times; lost to my sight because of the crowd, I couldn’t hear if he had started to sing again or not.
I wish I had thanked him.