I immediately regretted my decision to sit by Jesse on the subway.
I had seen a man hunched over in his seat, wearing a bright green jacket, and my first thought was Holy Shit! It’s the guy I photographed in Washington Heights. I sat down next to him and shook him awake. My second thought was Holy Shit! What is that smell? But it was too late. Jesse was awake. And simple courtesy demanded that I remain next to him for the rest of the journey. The other passengers were huddled at the opposite end of the subway, giving me looks of pity and amazement.
I remember you, said Jesse. He pointed at his shopping cart. Do you see my flowers?
I had met Jesse a few weeks earlier while photographing in Washington Heights, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood on the far north end of Manhattan. I had just discovered an interesting wall of graffiti, and was searching for a compatible subject. It was not long until I noticed a small group of people congregated across the street. One of them was a man with a shopping cart full of flowers. A flower salesman, I thought, that’s nice. He was wearing an oversized green jacket. He had a very friendly face.
Excuse me, I said, would you mind if I took your photograph? He asked for a dollar. I’ll give you three dollars, I said, if you’ll follow me across the street. I normally pay for photographs using a three tiered system. I pay a dollar if I really want the picture. I pay two dollars if I really, really want the picture. I pay three dollars if the guy is near a wall of graffiti, has a friendly face, and is pushing a shopping cart full of flowers. Jesse seemed eager to make the deal.
As we began to cross the street, another man followed us. This is my friend Juan, Jesse told me. Juan looked rough. He looked like he had a bad cold. His eyes were red, his nose was running. But he and Jesse were having a great time. They were laughing and slapping each other on the back. They seemed very happy.
I took your picture in Washington Heights, I said.
I remember you, said Jesse. You made me very proud that day to make my photograph.
It was a wonderful photo, I said.
You made my friend Juan very happy that day. You made us feel proud.
When we got to the wall of graffiti, I was anxious to take the photograph. But Jesse and Juan wanted to talk. Juan told me that he used to fight in Vietnam. He had a huge smile on his face, as if he was telling me that he used to work at Disney World. Juan was wasted. Jesse seemed drunk, but Juan was wasted.
I used to be a model, Jesse told me. I was in many magazines. He laughed heartily, showing very few teeth. But he had a very friendly face. Are you a professional photographer?
I kept my answer simple. I’m going all around New York. I am going to take pictures of 10,000 people.
Jesse laughed. You are crazy, he said, still laughing. He slapped Juan on the back. But you are in the right place to be crazy. New Yorkers are crazy. We are always doing things that you have to be crazy to do. Isn’t that right Juan? Juan just kept laughing. I’m not even sure he was listening.
Jesse continued: You know that the first bridge was built in New York? That didn’t sound right to me.
It’s because we are crazy.
I was still two stops from my destination, but the smell had gotten so bad that all I could think about was not throwing up. I am going to decorate my flowers with Christmas lights, Jesse said. I was leaning as far back in my seat as possible, turning my head occasionally to huff in some of the fresh air coming from the other end of the subway car. That will be something, what are people going to think when they see me with my flowers and my Christmas lights?
They are going to think you are crazy, I said. But New Yorkers are crazy.
Jesse laughed. Yes! He said, New Yorkers are crazy. He was a man of simple truths, oft repeated. I wondered if I knew him well enough to recommend a shower. The subway finally arrived at my destination. I told Jesse goodbye, and dashed out of the car. I immediately began to suck in air, as if I was emerging from a deepwater dive.
I saw Juan again at 2 AM on Christmas morning. He was alone. He was slumped over in his seat on the A-train. His mouth hung open, a small bottle of vodka protruded from his coat pocket. God damn it Juan, it’s Christmas. His glasses fell off his face and landed on the floor of the subway. I walked over and picked up his glasses, and tucked them into his jacket pocket. I included a long overdue payment for a first-tier photograph. He never woke up.