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The New York Times, Sunday, October 1, 1995

A Flower Child's Long Night


Angel Was My Buddy; Now the Kids Laugh at Him and His Guitar


To subway riders in the Prince Street Station, the hooded guitarist playing for spare change is just another miscellaneous character in their travels. For me, he is the ghost of summers' past.


Angel sits on a handmade wooden stool with his back against the subway wall. He plays an old Stella guitar that rings slightly out-of-tune in the underground hallways, and his coppery voice echoes off the ancient mosaic tiles.


On this summer night, the temperature hovers near 100, yet Angel wears a jacket over a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. Wraparound sunglasses as dark as his skin conceal his face. When I notice a kid elbow his buddy and snicker in Angel's direction, it makes me mad. Because about a million years ago, Angel and I were buddies.


Back in the summer of 1968, when I was 14, I spent every day in Washington Square Park with a bunch of flower-powered tie-dyed park regulars. Angel was one of the crowd, a soft-spoken, friendly street kid who'd stop by the park to play music and hang out.


Everyone called me "Runaway," even though I kept telling them the truth, which was that I spent most every night back at my parents' home in Sheepshead Bay with its well-stocked refrigerator and tidy middle-class décor. I was pretty miserable at home and the park was the only place that felt right.


It was the summer I played guitar around the fountain, singing Janis Joplin songs for tourists. Sometimes, at night, I would walk with angel and a girl from Chicago named Jacki over to the Free Store on Third Avenue, where we'd sit around on the thrift store furniture and watch the serious older hippies. Once the owners asked me to leave because they thought I was a runaway. By autumn, most members of our rag-tag group were gone, called back to jobs, school, and hometowns far away.


In the 1970s and 80s, I would sometimes see Angel walking down Eighth Street. I charted his interest in the martial arts and music by his Ninja wardrobe and the guitar slung over his back. But I never spoke with him after that summer of '68. Out of shyness, perhaps fearing the gulf of time, apprehensive that he wouldn't remember me, I just walked on.


One afternoon a few years ago, I stopped into Smiler's, and there he was, standing in front of me on the checkout line. I wanted to go up to him and say, "I know you. Remember those mornings in the park? Remember when the twilight sounds of the Doors and the Chambers Brothers boomed out of MacDougal Street windows? How have you been?" But I didn't say anything.


A few nights later, riding my bicycle through the West Side, I spotted Angel playing his guitar under a deserted store canopy. I stopped and listened and finally got up enough nerve to talk to him. Though he didn't seem to recall his earlier bond, he spoke of his faith in Jesus and the hard times he'd been through. We shared the eerie stillness of Christopher Street.


The funny thing is, though I've lived in New York my whole life, I never run into old acquaintances . no old schoolmates or bandmates, none of the myriad people I've met in my travels. Seeing Angel rattles a few bones in the attic of my mind.


Tonight in the summer-stifling subway station, Angel is in good voice. He sings in a woolly, bruised tenor, never trying for notes he can't get and not making too much out of the ones he does. It is a natural voice, untutored but not without beauty. He embroiders the lyrics of familiar songs, twisting the words, adding asides and unusual endings to lines that don't always rhyme. (Angel also writes his own songs, railroad blues with hints of gospel and folk, rich with religious images.)


I see the looks of some of the passers-by give Angel. They dismiss him at a glance. But I can't. It's not that I pity him; in fact I think in some way I'm proud of him. Survival in this city is not easy. It can suck the dreams out of you if you're not careful. I think Angel's still got a few left.


Then the train roars into the station, drowning out the music of strings and singing. I drop a dollar into Angel's guitar case; it falls next to a picture of a saint and a packet of guitar strings. I can't tell if he sees me, if he knows me. I board the train.