Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Subway Sketch

 by Patrick

When you’ve spent even a short amount of time riding the NYC subway, you quickly become immured against all the vendors, buskers, preachers and panhandlers you encounter there. It’s not long before you’ve seen every acrobatic dance, every noise-making trinket, every bootlegged DVD, before you’ve heard every a capella gospel number, every mariachi band, every joke (‘smile, it won’t mess up your hair’) and exhortation (‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’). It’s easy to become cynical about the panhandlers in particular.

After you’ve heard the same man, over the course of years, repeatedly recount his attack, hospitalization and recent release – and I mean the same words verbatim, the same choking up of emotion at exactly the same point in the story – it’s easy to doubt the veracity of his claims, or at least question how recent these events were. I’m not quite ready to believe the local lore that claims these folks are all phonies making better money than me that they blow on their drug habits and mansions, but most of the time I do follow local custom, and ignore them.

One fellow, however, has caught my attention more than once.  I’ve never seen anyone else do this; he sketches his fellow passengers. On street level of course one can find hundreds of sketch artists ready to caricature you for a fee, but this man does it on the subway, choosing people at random or according to some private criteria. His mien is mild; he’s small, elderly, grizzled, and hunched, his clothing – bulky black layers– suggest he may live on the street, or has in the past, but they’re clean and he appears to be in decent health. His clipboard, stub of pencil and printer paper, in combination with his mild demeanor immediately give him permission to break one of the cardinal rules of subway riding; he can stare at people without causing alarm.

While he’s caught my attention on several occasions, during a trip just before Thanksgiving I caught his. When I boarded he was drawing a beautiful young woman. When he finished her sketch he turned his attention to an older business man, then, perhaps having noticed my interest, he began one of me. In all three cases he sprayed the drawings with fixative then simply offered his models the drawing without comment; the only words I heard him speak were when he asked me “how many more stops?” When I saw my portrait, I said “I look like Oscar Wilde.” Not the look I’d been going for that day, or ever, but I still appreciated the effort. I made a small contribution which he took with a nod, already deep into his next drawing, a young man in gangsta wear. He was having fun with the shadows cast by the bill of the guy's hat. When his other models got off, leaving him with nothing more than a thank you, a man to his left objected to their stinginess, but the artist didn’t seem to notice or care. To be honest I’m not even sure he does this for the money. He never made any requests, never shook a hat filled with change, nothing. I usually resent it when people provide me with ‘services’ I didn’t request in the hopes of guilting me into a donation – opening doors for me while requesting change is something I find strangely irritating– but there was nothing annoying about this gentleman's approach. That may sound like pretty faint praise, but on the subway, not annoying others is a gift. And if my modest contribution helped him spend another night snorting coke off hookers in his Sutton Place condo, I figure it also let him buy himself some more printer paper, and maybe a longer bit of pencil. I’m good with that.


  1. A wonderful story. I get very annoyed when people want money for holding a door, too. Or wishing me good night. Fuck off. I'm a New Yorker. I'll have whatever goddamn kind of night I want. :-)

  2. I love the exceptions to the rules!

    I have only cracked open my wallet twice on the train, both times for classical music. Years ago there was a guy playing clarinet on the Q train into Manhattan, and just this Monday there was a man on the Brooklyn-bound F who carried a little folding stool so he could play cello.

    I hope I see this sketch artist one day.

  3. It's no different in Chicago. Took me awhile to learn you just can't look directly at anybody.

    As a pastor I hear hard-knock stories all the time. Sadly, my heart has to be slightly hardened to them because there are people who take extreme advantage of generosity. But there is great joy when you run into that one "gem," like this man. It does make my heart grow three sizes when I can truly tell my life has been changed by the true gratitude of another.