Public transportation is no simple matter to me. Whether traveling by train, plane, bus, or car, there is always a certain neuroses in check.
On both the Long Island Rail Road and the New York City subway, I constantly try to monitor which car will make my ride least uncomfortable. What do I look for as the train arrives? Considering that the subway never leaves much time, I make snap decisions based on whether anyone is fanning themselves (broken air conditioning?), a cluster of seats is empty on a busy train (smelly drunk passed out in adjacent seat?), or if a panhandler is performing tunes on his fiddle (a panhandler is performing "tunes" on his fiddle). The Long Island Rail Road isn't much different, except that the main targets of which to beware tend to be JAPs on cell phones, Carmine Gotti lookalikes, and chatty Moms going to or coming from a Menopause! The Musical matinee.
Personally, I'm a big fan of the 'bos. In New York (and elsewhere, I'd imagine), hobos tend to be less threatening and more entertaining (for proof, skim the pages of Overheard in New York). I've always enjoyed their existence, both before and after I, myself, attempted the lifestyle (but exclusively through wardrobe, which, before long caught on with the Hollywood starlet crowd - yup, that was me). They might otherwise be referred to as "crazies," "beggars," or "panhandlers," but utilizing the term "hobo," which was originally a term for the young, Depression-era nomads who traveled illegally by trains, works best for me, for no other reason than that it sounds funny.
Luckily, I've come across some of the same hobos several times over the past few years. There's the dude who puts out cigarettes on his arm. There's the guy who told me, on more than one occasion, that he wants "[my] feet and [my] sandals!" There's the saxophonist who can barely hit a note, yet knowingly threatens to continue playing until he gets "some motherfucking money." There's the dude who dresses like the carnival of my nightmares, the lady who frequents the subway and LIRR (how will she and her notably absent "son" get home without $3 from my wallet?), and the guy who shot explosive, yolk-like diarrhea (unfortunately the most accurate term, believe me) into a park in broad daylight to which I, alone, was the single witness.
Out of all the hobos I've encountered, male and female, threatening and harmless, annoying and grating, there is just one who has continued to make me laugh at the sight of him. Yes, it's terrible that I'd look at a helpless, dirt-poor homeless person and laugh, but this guy... This. Guy!
At about seven feet tall and four hundred pounds, this dinosaur of a man looks like the dirty lovechild of ?uestlove (of The Roots) and Pigpen (of Peanuts, if Pigpen were black and obese), with a hint of Mo'Nique thrown in for the extra hundred pounds. I simply call him "Black Pigpen."
What makes him so special, however, is not what he says, but what he wears. Instead of the usual tattered clothing, this fella actually dons what appears to be a makeshift barrel over his body, held up only by a string around his shoulders. It's total throwback to the days when hobos...wore...barrels? Dude's giving props to the schizophrenics from back in the day, to the schizoids of yesteryear direct from the figments of my cartoon-laden psyche!
His enormous presence lingers over the whole subway car, where I've never witnessed him actually beg for money. Everyone remains eerily silent, except for Black Pigpen, who stands like a giant at one of the double doors, where his unhealthily frizzed, dirty afro reached the ceiling. Last time I saw him, e stood still, his Redwood-like calves planted into the squishy remains of what may have once been a pair of sandals. His dirty hands, reaching out from the filthy rags and wooden plank covering his body, stretched to the ceiling, where he held on by flattening his hands to ninety degree angles, not quite getting a solid grip (as if it matters to the man whose feet could double as anchors).
It took me several minutes before I noticed him, only after realizing that it was he who had been whistling music that brought to mind the theme song of every fifties-era sitcom. As a matter of fact, his whistling was pleasant, and helped break up the surprisingly awkward silence of the C at rush hour. I was glad to see him.
And then, one stop before departing the train at Nassau Street, Black Pigpen finished his song abruptly, interrupting himself which a deep, resounding belch. In real time, it probably lasted four seconds, but in my mind, it went on forever. Forever and ever...
As soon as it happened, as with most strangely entertaining events that take place underground in New York, I immediately got a reading on who here was with me. A girl sitting next to him, whom until this point had done her best to be tolerant, immediately got up and moved seats in a huff. I caught a few smiles, but there was one guy with whom I made eye contact and, without a word, we were able to communicate the same exact sentiment:
Black Pigpen? Total genius.