To the Man with the Boombox Backpack
It was a year ago today. Around 8pm.
You probably didn’t notice me. I was sitting on that bench. That bench on the northbound platform, right at the bottom of the first staircase. It’s kind of nuzzled under the second staircase. That’s where I was sitting.
I had been sitting there a while. A few trains had passed. The MTA had just unrolled cell service on all train platforms a month earlier, and that night as I walked down that first staircase to the northbound platform, I got a call from my brother that my father had died. I didn’t have to wait until I was above ground to find out my dad was going below ground. What a joke. Thanks, MTA.
I didn’t know how I was going to ever leave that bench. I texted an ex-boyfriend, told him what happened, asked him to come get me. He said no. I understood. I’d been leaning on him too much. A few trains came and went. I texted my 12-step sponsor. She was all the way in Astoria. I told her I couldn’t move. She told me I’d be able to move when I was ready.
That’s when you came down the stairs. I heard your music before I saw you. The finger snaps, and then Michael Jackson’s voice: “I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life…”
It was a ridiculous choice of song for the moment. Like if I wrote this as a piece of fiction, it would get so many eye rolls. But here you were, a man with a boombox backpack, playing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, standing on the G-train platform, just moments after I learned my dad died.
I started laughing, and then I started crying. I thought about the difficult relationship I had with my father — my favorite person on the planet. How he could never get sober. How after years of working the soul-deadening swing shift in a paper factory, he left abruptly when I was 22 to go live a more care-free life with a woman who didn’t judge his drinking in a town way up north. How I left for Los Angeles a year later in much the same way, telling no one I was moving, just doing what I knew I had to do. How I had the same issues with alcohol and cigarettes and how I made many of the same decisions he made to control my addictions before I finally got sober at 34. Dying in a marriage with someone who was “better” because it felt like what I was supposed to do. Dying in a career because it felt like what I was supposed to do. And how in the past six years (two of those without substances) I started building the life I actually wanted to be living.
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror…”
I thought about the five months since my dad received his cancer diagnosis. How for the past ten years I’d only seen him three times: at my wedding and at my grandparents’ funerals. How once he got his diagnosis I made a point of getting one on one time with him around Thanksgiving. How good it felt to spend time just the two of us, just me and my favorite person. How we started texting every day (I found out he got a cell phone when he sent a text that said he had cancer). How hard it was to be so far away while he was so sick. How his cancer progressed so quickly, from a three year prognosis to signing a DNR in just five months.
I thought about the week I’d just spent with him in the hospital, sleeping on a bench in his room. Being there for him in his final week, just me and my dad with occasional visits from my aunts and my dad’s girlfriend and my brother and his wife. How I spent the days sitting quietly at his bedside, holding his hand while he slept. How I was unknowingly preparing for this throughout my childhood, all the times I’d sit on the edge of his bed while he slept after an 11pm-7am shift at the paper factory, or the 7am-3pm shift, or the 3pm-11pm shift. All the times I’d silently dance and stretch in the living room while he slept in his reclining chair. How silence was how I learned to spend time with him. We’d been practicing for so long.
“I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love, It’s time that I realize…”
By this point you stationed yourself, you and your boombox backpack playing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, right in front of me. It was a little much, but my god it was so perfect.
Because you reminded me of the joy of that week together. How I was finally able to let go of the pain from when my dad left thirteen years earlier. How once I let go of that pain I was able to finally see how much my dad loved me. How when I yelled “I’m doing my best!” and burst into tears when that nurses’ aide chided me for not wanting to learn how to change my dad’s hospital gown (neither of us wanted that!), my dad quietly called me over to his bed, held my hand, and said with his whispery, labored voice, “well, that…was weird.” And then we laughed and cried and he patted my hair. How I sang him his favorite Beatles song, and he sang along with me. How he held my hand and he told me he was sorry, and I held his hand and told him it was okay. How when I told him he was a good dad, I meant it, and how when he told me I was a good daughter, I believed it.
“If you wanna make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make that-”
Then I heard Michael’s key change in the chorus, and I looked up and suddenly the platform was full and it seemed that everybody was dancing to your music. It was ridiculous. I just laughed and I cried, watching this group of strangers dancing and singing, all because you had the balls to carry a boombox backpack in public. There was so much joy and absurdity right there in front of me.
It was too much. It was all too much. And I had so much gratitude. And the platform was packed, and the joy was contagious. And I cried, and you danced. And it was all too much.
And then as the song ended, no joke, the next northbound G train arrived.
And you all got on the train.
And the platform was empty.
And I was alone again, on the bench.
But I knew now in my heart I wasn’t alone.
And I was finally ready to get up.
So, I just wanted to say thank you.
Thank you to the man with the boombox backpack.
Thank you to everyone who danced.