I got to take the A train, to go to sugar hill, way up in Harlem. I leap down the stairs at 14th street station, ignoring the wild brass band playing and dancing out of their skin. I got to hurry, get on, it’s coming. Listen to those rails a-thrumming all abourd. If I miss this A train, I’ll miss the quickest way to Harlem.
I change from the A to the 1 at Columbus Circle. Doors slide open, I rush aboard and sit down before an old black man in a long black rain coat with a black hat. Slightly crooked, shoulders bent inward. Wire basket cart faitfully by his side, large drawing pad on his lap. His tired eyes scan the wagon, rest on me and stay with me. He starts sketching, resolute, gaze going back and forth, his charcoal fingers choosing from dozens of black pencils. Uneasy at first – I choose a dot to fixate my gaze further down the wagon – but more than pleasant after a few stops. Presumptuous, I know, but that’s what happens.
“You hea’ for a while?”, he asks after the sixth stop without halting his drawing.
“I need to get off at 125th street.” He nodds and draws on. But for the ceaseless a-thrumming, the wagon’s silent and its attention has two focal points. The drawer’s neighbours smile at me.
“Here”, he rips the portrait from the pad, takes a plastic FedEx envelope out of his wire cart, puts the portrait into the envelope and hands it over to me. I take the portrait out. I look like little Richard. This must be Harlem. Setting sunlight suddenly falls into the wagon. We fly over the city. A hybrid white tower – church and skyscraper at the same time, machine from the past and the far future alike – gleams orange in an immaculate blue sky. Another one of those dream scrapers.
“You have a little somethin’ for me?”, the drawer asks with just a little indignation. “Of course! I forgot!”, and I hand him five dollars. A short man with a puffy face and a little moustache sits down next to me. The drawer doesn’t complain about my stinginess and hurries to start a new portrait. “Hihihi”, the man with the moustache, clearly Jewish, giggles. “He’s got a lot of talent”, he says, “he could make a lot of money if he wanted to.”
In this light and not being the object, I can observe the drawer freely. I notice there’s a discrete pause between his observation and his sketching. In this pause, he closes his eyes and lets the impression push onto his eyes, push back his head. He opens his eyes without turning back at the object and sketches. The portrait of the man next to me is finished in less than two stops. He looks like a little piggy. Strange, considering he’s Jewish. He donates twenty dollars.
“You know, I wanna be an extreme detaillist. But at the same time I wanna go all the way backwards.” I look at him with a question mark. “To be as detailed as possible with only a few strokes. But then I need to do more of these, much more.”
He expresses the exact same issue I’m having with my work. But I don’t wanna be goin’ into that. “We all need practice”, I respond. He browses through his sketches. “This one I did yesterday.” It shows an all-American young woman with long curly hair. “Now look at this one.” The same all-American woman, looking much more like a vicious reptile this time, just by elaborating the suggestions of his first sketch. I try to suppress my laughter and he winks complicitously. “Which one you like better, huh?”
The train slows down and the doors open on a wide bridge in the sunset. This is 125th street. I wish the drawer good luck and walk down the stairs into Harlem. Wellington should be waiting for me down there.
To be continued…