I got on the train and heard them before I saw them -- two Mexican men in matching blue shirts and black cowboy hats, singing and playing their guitars in the subway car. Not everyone who sings in the subway is very good, but these guys were, and we were pretty far uptown, too, so they were among friends. They finished their song just before we got to 103rd Street, and the car applauded while their colleague passed his hat. They did pretty well, I think. The three filed out of the car when the doors opened. When we got to 96th Street, I heard a snatch of their song there before the doors closed again and we sped off into the darkness.
There was music when I got home, too -- Rosie was burning a CD. I'm not exactly sure what you do when you burn a CD, but she does it on our computer every night before going to bed, and plays her music all night while she sleeps. Rose has nice musical taste: right now, Peggy Lee's "Fever" wafts from the bedroom as she dresses. She also likes Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. But then there are other songs less congenial to her grandparents: I'm a loser, so why don't you kill me? asks one young singer. Good Lord.
The summer night was hot, and there was no air conditioning. The radio was next to my bed. I didn't notice the scratchiness of the AM transmission, having nothing to which to compare it -- we didn't really have FM in those days, not in our house, anyway, and so we tuned into stations from cities far away from us: WKBW in Buffalo, WLS in Chicago, radio stations whose signals could travel thousands of miles across the night along the AM band. Their distance conferred a certain exoticism on them: the kids in Buffalo seemed somehow cooler than we were. A lot cooler. But at least we were listening to the same station.
The music made me feel understood. It was music my parents didn't like and didn't understand, and never would. This alone recommended it highly. But it also joined me to other kids. We all liked it. Kids I didn't know liked it. Kids in Buffalo, kids in Chicago, but also kids in England, even kids in Japan. I lay alone in my narrow bed, but I was not alone. The music flew through the air and across the continents, and we all tuned in. In a sense, we were all home together.
The Delta Five played today, Q said over the phone. The Delta Five formed in 1948, and played jazz every Friday night at Amherst until they graduated. Then the Five took a hiatus that lasted fifty years, until they played again at their fiftieth reunion. Silver-haired boys onstage, more silver-haired boys in the audience, snapping their fingers, tapping their feet, nodding in time.
How were they? I asked him.
Oh, they were great, Q said. There are seven of them now. I guess some new people are sitting in these days.
Q says he had tears in his eyes as the Delta Five played. I hear Peggy Lee from the bedroom and mist up, too. What a gift that I can hear her any time, even though she's gone now. That she and Louis Armstrong can cross generations, find new loves. I wonder if the kid who thinks he's a loser and wants me to kill him will make people cry with joy in fifty years. I don't know. I don't understand him. But Rose does. Maybe there's more to him than I think.
The people on the subway car applauded the Mexican singers. Some of them were from Mexico, too, and the singers brought back their own streets, their own houses, their own stores, their grandparents. I forgot to look to see if any of them cried a little. But I could see them smile.