Years ago—it was many lives ago—I worked nights in Manhattan. Some people call that grave shifting or paying dues. Others call it chasing the light.
To stay awake I used to buy coffee at Smilers, the deli on 7th Ave in the Village. Usually around 3 am.
Every night on a crate in front of Smilers sat an old black man. White hair, blind. I think he was mildly autistic. He rocked back and forth endlessly. Like Ray Charles caught in the groove. Next to the crate was a boom box, and a simple handwritten sign: Please.
All night he would rock back at forth quietly singing southern gospel songs along with his boom box tracks. And around him till dawn the night city swirled.
At 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 a.m. in the Village, 7th Avenue is full of souls searching the dark for things they could never hope to find in the light of day. Night shifter firemen and cops pumping up their pensions working OT in the last year before cashing out. Wall Streeters trying to miss the last train home and whispering to some curvy prospect about how the wife never understands them. Drunks looking for just one more in the after-hours bars. Some closeted gay guys whispering for directions to the Sado clubs on Little West 12th. The last call club dancers looking for anyone to put their arms around to hold off the “I don’t want to go home” kind of lonely.
And guys like me, bone tired . . . heart tired, chasing the light. Looking for any kind of jolt to make it through to dawn.
And at the center of all this swirl, calm and steady as a metronome, was this old black singer whispering his country hymns.
Every night, half asleep, I’d stop and listen to him a moment. Watch him, rocking back and forth, oblivious to it all. Then I’d step in to buy some coffee.
It was 50 cents a cup back then. Black as night and just as strong. And when you tasted it at 3 a.m. you could feel the strong in it make its way into you. It could make you feel untired, like you were going to somehow make it to dawn.
One late autumn night, I stopped. He was singing “Amazing Grace.”
“How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
‘Twas blind but now I see.”
Here was this old blind man in the middle of the city night singing about someday seeing. I listened for a minute. He looked cold to me. I knew something about that kind of cold and recognized the look.
He was wearing gloves with the fingers cut out, rocking back and forth and shivering a little from the bracing wind.
I turned into Smilers. The overnight counter guy was Eastern European, Slovak, wised up. He had hair everywhere. A real missing link. I nodded and he pulled a cup of joe.
I started to pay, then hesitated, looked outside, and said, “Give me two.” Then I stepped back into the wind, walked toward the old man, and touched his arm.
He stopped rocking, suddenly still. Afraid, I think.
“Here,” I said, lifting his hand. “It’s cold tonight. Coffee.”
He stared at me sightlessly. Then he started nodding again and again and took the cup from me. And I turned to go.
Autumn collapsed into winter. Every night I’d stop for a moment, buy one for me and one for him. He never said a word, and all I ever said was “Coffee.”
Then one night in early December, I hadn’t eaten so I bought a tuna on rye. Toasted. The Slovak took out a meat cleaver and slammed it, cutting the bread in half.
I stepped back out and stood listening. The old man was singing.
“Swing low . . . Sweet Chariot
Coming for to carry me home.”
“Coffee,” I said and handed him the cup. He took it, held it in both hands, and turned toward where I stood. Then, like a prayer, he whispered one word: “Hungry.”
I stared at the sandwich in my hand. It suddenly felt heavy. Seventh Avenue was quiet. I looked at his sign: Please. I took half the sandwich and handed it to him. And left.
All that winter I’d stop in the middle of the night, listen for a bit, and buy two coffees. Sometimes if I was starved I’d buy two sandwiches and give him one. Otherwise half.
That spring I quit chasing the light, at least in that way. My last shift and the last time I saw that old man he was rocking back at forth. As I walked away, I heard him singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
“I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away . . . I’ll fly away.”
And I felt something in his voice reach into some place inside me where I knew it would wait forever.
That was a lifetime ago and I’m sure by now he’s finally flown away.
But I still see him sometimes, rocking back and forth in the alleyways of my dreams. And I still hear him softly calling out in the middle of the night above the 7th Ave. of my heart.
There is a kind of immortality in that, in the way a memory can be creased sometimes by a stranger.
In the grand scheme of things, buying coffee for an old blind singer is not much. It’s not. I got much much more than I gave.
I got a hymn that only I hear, immortal now, whispering to me from decades ago.
And I got the memory of an old man . . . like me . . . blindly chasing the light.
Before he flew away.
Will Maguire is an ex-patriot New Yorker, self-exiled in Nashville. He is a songwriter and writer, who still wanders the streets of Manhattan in his dreams.