The subway singer

Last night, for some reason, I wound up with a song stuck in my head. It’s actually a pretty well-known Mexican song from the 1940s, Besame Mucho. It’s been recorded by a lot of famous singers over the years, but the version playing in my head was never recorded. I first heard it on a subway platform ~25 years ago, when I was a teenager attending college in NYC.

The singer was a homeless man who’d sing at one particular station I passed through frequently. It wasn’t one of the busy ones downtown, but it was a transfer station where passengers would get off one train and wait (usually at least one song-length) for another train, providing small but captive audiences at regular intervals.

I can still remember his face. He was an African American man with a salt-and-pepper beard and weathered, leathery-looking skin. The whites of his eyes were noticeably yellow.  His huge smile revealed more than a couple bad teeth. He wasn’t much taller than I was. It was obvious that he’d lived a difficult life.

But his voice was amazing. In a way, he sounded like he looked: bluesy, raspy, gritty, real. He’d set his hat on the ground in front of him so passersby could toss in a few coins, and he’d stand there and sing a cappella, probably for hours. He had many songs in his repertoire, but the only one I really remember is Besame Mucho. I didn’t know that song before I heard him sing it, but something about beauty of the melody, the emotion in his voice, and the expressiveness of his face made it unforgettable to me.

I would drop whatever change I had into his hat. I don’t think I ever asked what his name was. I know I never asked him to tell me his story. And now, looking back, I wish I had, because there must have been a story behind a man who could sing such beautiful love songs, but always seemed to be alone.

I wonder if he ever imagined that 20+ years later, someone would still vividly recall his voice singing Besame Mucho, and still consider it one of the best renditions ever sung.

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