A sturdy Black man boards the train at Prospect Park. In his 40s, he’s midway between hail-Mary hope and a shuffling resignation. Tonight, the train’s lights piercing the dark, he’s blissed out on hip-hop, belting out lyrics.
“Fuck the police.”
He climbs steps to the raised section and sits with his back against the conductor’s cabin. Eyes closed, holding his phone up like a lantern, he searches the song for places where he can enter, yelling the words he recalls. “The niggas on the street is a majority.” Why broadcast the lyrics with such exuberance on the light rail? Maybe he’s being bold. Or maybe he’s just high.
Either way, I’m irritated. I’ve come from a closing reception for an exhibition, where conversations flowed non-stop for hours. I’m craving silence. Instead, the trains wheels squeal at a high pitch around curves and I’m trapped in a train car with a human amplifier.
“You hamster-ass nigga. You just stuck in a loop.”
Two teenagers across the aisle from the man seem oblivious to these outbursts. Chattering and laughing, heads leaning toward each other, they’re making their own music and they don’t seem to mind his mixing in.
Oh please, mister, please be quiet. Surely the conductor hears these outbursts. Surely the cabin door will fly open at the next stop and the conductor will sternly advise the man to turn down his volume. I sigh as the cabin door remains closed.
At the Snelling Avenue stop a Black woman wearing loose, robe-like clothing boards the train and takes a seat halfway between me and the amplifier, facing me.
“I’ve got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one.”
The outbursts gain momentum as the man listens to a song he knows well. The woman between us fidgets with a pamphlet. Gradually a soprano voice rises from the din, singing just one word, slowly, over and over: alleluia. The clarity of her voice shines like the sun breaking through storm clouds.
As the woman’s voice grows louder, so does the man’s, Alleluias layer over expletives and profanity layers over alleluias.
I begin to see the Black man in a different light. Perched in the elevated section of the train car, it’s as if he’s in the pulpit, sharing a liturgy from streets littered with needles and Colt 45 cans, from the confines of a prison cell, from yet another funeral for a Black man killed by the police. He’s reciting psalms of lament, a rapper’s version of “I cried unto the Lord with my voice…I poured out my complaints before him, and showed him of my trouble.”
As the angelic choir in this impromptu church service on the Green Line, the Black woman sings praises to the One who knows the pain of those who suffer. Her melodious voice softens hearts hardened by the fear of being overwhelmed by the suffering of others, the uneasiness of profiting from systemic oppression.
She softens my heart.