Tinged with doo-wop and a quarter-step flat on the high notes, his voice was a throwback to when black men sang falsetto.
“Somewhere over the rainbow,” his voice rang through the Red Line subway station at Grand. “Way up high.”
He stood alone on the 5:20 p.m. platform of bustling urbanites, of men in ties and women in skirt suits glazed with a day’s tedium, ready for trips home to on-demand binge shows and dinners nuked, boiled or ordered in.
“There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.”
No band, no fellow singers, no boom box accompaniment, he stood alone in faded blue jeans, tan windbreaker and dusty orange-brown baseball cap. He rocked and wobbled on a cane he clutched behind a lime-green bucket clipped with a laminated CTA street performer permit.
He sang head dipped and eyes closed as if in prayer.
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
He clutched his cane with both hands, wrapping it in fingers as dusty and cracking as his voice on the high notes.
He sang of wishing on stars, of lemon drops and chimney tops but where you’ll find him is only in a CTA station, leaning on a cane with a head dipped in prayer over a lime-green bucket no one was filling.
“If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” he sang, his voice reaching at the end for that extra quarter step he could have nailed when he was young and strong and black men sang falsetto.
“Yesterday,” he continued without pause for claps, coins or breath. “All my troubles seemed so far away.”
There was no change among the crowd in the shift from Garland to McCartney. Those that watched still watched. Those that ignored, ignored.
“Now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
His hands stayed on the cane. His eyes stayed closed, his head dipped beneath the ball cap.
His voice stayed tinged with doo-wop.
“Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be. There’s a shadow hanging over me. Oh, yesterday came suddenly.”
The only change was now time, not space, kept him from his dreams.
“Why she had to go? I don’t know. She wouldn’t say.”
Did he know he was singing of loss each time? Did he know he filled the din of a 5:20 train station with beautiful pain, of separation by space, then time? Did he know that after the train whooshed, dinged, announcered its way into the station that his trade for the few dollars lining the lime-green bucket had been a sense of loss and longing that would cling to us all the way home?
Or was he just singing pretty songs that only had a few points where he was a quarter-step flat?