There’s a man who sits with his daughter in the back car of the 1 train on their evening commute. I assume he picks her up from school or aftercare once he’s finished with work for the day and together, they take the train home.
They’re an unassuming pair, save for the fact that she’s a girl of maybe seven and has the fashion sense of a pint-sized drag queen, as most seven-year-old girls do. Today, she’s wearing a bright purple track suit lined with light blue faux-fur. On her head is an oversized beanie which looks like a horse’s head, the plumes of a rainbow-colored mane sticking up into the air. It’s probably a cartoon character I’m two generations too old to know about and she wears it well. Her cheeks are rosy, probably from the winter blast we’re experiencing, and she sits politely next to her father who looks like the everyman from a crowd of extras in a Marvel movie.
The thing I love about this father-daughter-duo is that on their train ride, he reads Roald Dahl books aloud to her. He may look like a regular guy, but when he begins to read, he serves as both storyteller and illustrator, becoming each character with the commitment of an actor on stage. His elastic face changes with each character’s voice, and he radiates the sort of playful glee that made the world fall in love with Jim Carrey.
His daughter never says a word, yet she follows along intently and quietly, both reading and hearing the story play out just for her in the back car of the 1 train. I love when our commutes align because I too, like his daughter, sit and listen intently.
The subway is the most interesting place in all of New York. For all the ways our city is partitioned – poor and rich, native and transplant, young and old, known or unknown – the subway is the place where we overlap, like the center point on a Venn diagram. It’s a place for privacy within one’s book or headphones while simultaneously being a place that’s entirely public for conversations or performances or, in this case, trips to the Chocolate Factory.
Listening to the tale of Willy Wonka and his guests come alive, it felt like our train car became the boat traveling down the chocolate river, flying through the zany underworld expanse of our city. He audibly created the personalities of each character as if he was sitting in front of his daughter’s classroom and I couldn’t help but take a quick scan of the other riders in our train car. Usually, when someone is loudly verbose – or for lack of a better word, unrealistically obnoxious – the denizens of the train car stare daggers into the offending party. Downtrodden buskers pleading for money or food, mariachi bands playing guitars and accordions, the hollers of “What time is it?” from young men who dance and spin around the poles for tips – it all takes place within the enclosed space of a train car, trapping the riders with those clamoring for their attention. It’s at times entertaining and at times disrupting, yet as this father read to his daughter, no one said a word.
No one commented about him being too loud and no one looked at him with the disdain they project onto overly-intrusive tourists on a choir trip. Rather, his emphatic storytelling calmed the car, as if our subway swipe paid our admission to this performance of imagination. Commuters were his audience in the mezzanine, watching from afar and I was among them, engrossed in the story being told. I sat quietly like the young girl and turning off the music in my headphones, I eavesdropped into the journey of Charlie and Grandpa Joe.
I watched as her big eyes followed along, her demeanor calm and quiet. Then, as he read the line: “Twenty tremendous chandeliers hung shimmering from the ceiling,” her expression opened as wide as her eyes and she exclaimed “Hey! Beautiful language! It says shimmer! That’s beautiful language!”
She couldn’t contain her excitement about the language used in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Just like Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail getting lost in the language of words like thither, this girl had an equally enchanted reaction to the word shimmer. She came alive at the sound of a word she immediately recognized as “beautiful language.”
When I was in sixth grade, I attended the talent show at my junior high school. We were required to go and our last class of the day had been canceled so the entire student body could cheer on our peers. The rub was that it was the end of an abnormally warm school day and by the time we filed into the auditorium, we were sweaty and antsy and ready to go home. That and there’s an understanding that junior high kids, unless you’re Leann Rimes, suck at singing. Adolescent prodigies may appear in robust supply on television, but the reality is that most schools aren’t full of children who should be singing Whitney Houston songs with a karaoke track.
As the show began, none of those adolescent prodigies showed up and instead, there were singers warbled their way through songs from Whitney and Mariah. The room was noticeably checked out and I was as well. I was more interested in the auditorium itself than what was happening on stage. My junior high school had, at one point, been the high school in our town. Therefore, we had amenities the other junior highs didn’t have, including a football stadium and a large auditorium. The domed auditorium sat on the corner of the property and was the first thing you saw as you approached the school. It looked like part of an egg sitting uncovered from the ground below. The story goes that they took a round hill of dirt and covered it with what would become the plaster ceiling of the auditorium. It was then hollowed out to be outfitted for seating and a stage. Looking up at the ceiling, it felt like I sat inside an eggshell listening to children butcher pop songs.
I became bored with the endless slew of pitchy singers and eventually, even the eggshell roof lost my interest. Just as I began looking back at the clock so I could run to the bus to get a good seat, a girl stepped on stage in a ballet outfit. When the music started, it was a song I’d never heard before. I had merely a passing acquaintance with what was on the radio then – most of who I listened to were gospel artists – but as she began to dance, she captivated me. It was a simple song. A breathy woman sang lightly and was eventually joined by a chorus of Celtic Women style backup vocalists. I’m sure the dancing was amateur at best, but I was completely enamored, sitting forward in my seat and watching this girl dance to a song so captivating I knew it would be a part of me forever.
It was beautiful language.
On the bus ride home that day, I sang the song I didn’t know the name to. I sang the phrases I could remember over and over, as if to imprint them into my memory for safe keeping. I sang “As I, lay me, down to sleep, this I pray…” A year later, I was still singing those words on repeat while on the football field, holding onto a beautiful moment amidst football practice, something categorically not beautiful. This was before iTunes and the internet made the world readily available to us. I had no way of looking up what that song was. Back then, Mac computers were still called Macintosh and Oregon Trail was only in 8-bit version 1.0.
It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in high school, four years after I’d seen it danced on stage, when I finally found out what the song was called. I bought a compilation CD that featured a random assortment of songs from movies and when I flipped it over, I saw the title of a song called “As I Lay Me Down,” by Sophie B. Hawkins.
I ripped open the military-grade plastic wrap CDs used to be packaged in and put the album in my Discman. When that song began to play, I lay back on my bed, closed my eyes and smiled. Not only had I found the song that’d been imprinted in my head and my heart for so many years, but it was just as beautiful as I remembered. I floated, back to sixth grade, watching my imagination unfold in the form of this girl dancing on the stage. The memory opened like flower petals, reflecting back the light and colors of my youth.
The father and daughter leave the train at the same stop as I, hand-in-hand. I walk a few paces behind them and can see the soles of her tiny shoes light up in pink and purple when she steps. Her backpack looks like the head of a friendly triceratops and she asked questions about Charlie and chocolate and chandeliers that shimmer.
Even among the cold, wet, and filthy ways the subway can feel so abusive, this father transforms his daily commute with her daughter into a world of the purest form of imagination: an imagination that’s in process. To witness this girl’s world open up to her felt special, sacred even. Her eyes widened as mine had when that dancer took the stage and it sunk me back into myself – my younger, less jaded, more inquisitive, and bewildered-in-the-best-way self – opening up to the wonders of the world for the first time. It was a shift in my spirit, like a tectonic shelf that jerked back into place. And it was beautiful.