The First Noel

The dirty, slushy, wet city snow soaked my black wingtip dress shoes and the cuffs of my suit pants as I walked through downtown Boston towards the subway station. I had left work a little early to finish some last-minute Christmas shopping, but was now headed home, towards a Red Line train that would take me from Park Street to the Harvard Square stop in Cambridge where I was living, just outside of the Harvard University campus with my fiance.

It had been another shit day in a job that I was starting to hate. Christmas was on the doorstep and I was struggling to find any semblance of holiday spirit. I have always been a person who finds it difficult to compartmentalize my life, to shut one part off, while enjoying the others, and animosity and dissatisfaction in one part of my psyche quickly seeps through the rest of me, just as water will always find a level spot by creeping into the smallest crevices of wherever it’s flowing.

When I reached the station I walked from street level down the stairs into the cement abyss. The blast of heat and the usual stench of city life and homelessness and urine overwhelmed me. As usual, the station was packed full of people waiting for the next train, people headed somewhere, anywhere. Looking for an open place to stand on the train platform, I noticed a scraggly, young man, dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, sneakers and a black, denim style jacket, standing against the wall with an acoustic guitar, hooked to a small amplifier. His guitar case sat open on the floor with a few coins and dollar bills inside. I didn’t think anything of it. He was just another hardened street musician trying to make a few bucks by performing to the masses in a stinky, smelly train station. I walked past as I’d walked past hundreds of these performers before, not realizing that this man was about to have a small, but profound effect on my life to this day.

The acoustic guitar notes coming from the small amplifier shouldn’t have been that crisp and clear, they shouldn’t have been that pristine… but they were. The man began singing a version of The First Noel and the song and the sound moved me for some reason in a way that I had not been moved many times before in the twenty-three years I had been alive. It was not the spirituality of the song, I was not and I am still not a religious person. It wasn’t necessarily the quality and talent of the musician either. But for a moment I was transfixed on this performance as if sitting in the famed Boston Colonial Theater listening to a Christmas concert. Something clicked and for a moment, I felt a kind of peace and happiness that has become so difficult to obtain amongst the commercialism of the holiday season.

The train approached as this man was playing the last few notes. On a whim, I reached into my wallet and pulled out a ten dollar bill and ran over to him and placed the money into his guitar case. The man smiled and said thank you and wished me a Merry Christmas as I turned to run back to the train. With a smile myself, I wished him the same blessings, not realizing that this would be one of those seemingly inconsequential moments in life that would somehow register in the front of my memory banks, easily accessible every December when Christmas Songs begin playing on the radio. I boarded the train and although I could no longer hear the music playing, I peered out the window and as this man began his next song, I wondered if anyone else standing on that platform had experienced anything magical, as I had.

Of course I never saw this man again. That’s life, especially in a large city with millions of people, where a fleeting, yet profound interaction with a complete stranger is always possible. As I contemplate my life these days, with the anxiety of a new career on the horizon, with the ongoing challenge of striving to find some level of success as a writer, with the persistent struggle to compartmentalize my life into those compact little pieces, and with another Christmas on the doorstep, I sometimes wish I could stand in the Park Street subway station and listen to that man play his version of The First Noel.

What seemingly inconsequential moments have you had in your life that you will always remember?


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13 responses to “The First Noel

  1. I have a thing where I give pocket-change to beggars. When I was on the streets as a kid, I panhandled. I don’t make a lot of money now and I donate to “vetted” causes but there’s that “spare change” thing (or if I can, I’ll get somebody a drink or food). Usually, they don’t let beggars hang about food joints in the County (STL). When it happens, if it’s cold, I’ll get a coffee (figure even if they don’t drink it, it can warm their hands)…

    One time, I had a sack of food with me. When I saw the man, I figured, “He needs it more than I.” I lowered the car window to give it to him. When he grabbed me, I realized: This Wasn’t Right. He had “dead eyes” and he grabbed my hand HARD. Had I put my car in park, he would’ve yanked me out the window. Since my car was not in park, I let my foot off the brake and broke free.

    I don’t hand out food/ drinks as often as I used to do. It’s too bad cos I’ve always felt I owed the Universe for helping/ protecting me when I was in a bad place but as a small woman, it’s not worth a risk. A street musician is another case but it sort of reminded me of that urge to “give back” and the lesson you carried in the future without knowing something so “normal” as handing out food (for me) would have shown. Over the years, when I’ve told people that, they go, “ARE YOU STOOPID?!” I guess so.

    • I think it’s okay to give back like that but you do have to be careful with panhandlers as they can be very aggressive. Mom Mom who worked in NYC for many years would buy them food rather than give them money, knowing the money would probably go towards booze.

    • I would be so freaking if someone grabbed me like that. It can be really scary when you’re too small to do anything about it. Another safe way to help is to provide money for shelters. They can only help so many and there’s kind of a pecking order thing that goes on, but you’re still helping with food and shelter.

  2. This is quite moving, Steve…well-told!


  3. I loved this story. And the way you told it was so eloquent and poignant. You are a wonderful writer!

  4. I had an interesting experience with a homeless person. I have a friend with season tickets for football and sometimes I go. Two years ago I went to a tailgate party. I was given the unenviable task of trying to prepare alligator meat for the BBQ. I thought I came up with a creative marinade, but most of the people at the tailgate couldn’t get past the unusual flavor of the meat. I don’t handle failure well, and I was a little upset.

    A homeless girl stopped by asking for recyclables and we offered her the leftover pieces, which she gladly took. She stayed a few minutes, during which she danced to our music, chatted, and cleaned the bones on the drumsticks. It made me feel a little better that someone appreciated the effort I had made, even if it was because they were starving.

    More than a year later, I ran into her again at the final game of the season last year. Out of the hundreds of thousands of people she’d milled through since that day looking for cans and bottles, she recognized me. She smiled and ran over to give me a big hug like we were old friends. “I know you! You’re the girl who made gator!” It really had seemed like an insignificant moment at the time, but it obviously made a difference to her too, and I’ll never forget it.

    Your subway story reminded me that Joshua Bell made a whole $32 playing a $3.5M violin in DC Metro in 2008…

  5. My stories of this sort tend to involve momentary fascinations or a seeming lack of focus that prevented me from walking into the path of a speeding drunk or stray bullet.

    Your story reminds me of that speech in Citizen Kane where his friend recalls (as an old man) once seeing a woman in a white dress for a few seconds who he never spoke to, and thinking about it nearly every day since. Wistful.

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