He stood playing a red Fender Stratocaster, an instrument more commonly seen on stages in front of thousands, or in the corners of teenage bedrooms thrumming with impossible dreams. His Burger King crown would have looked ridiculous but he was the king of this subway station stage despite playing this mournful, misplaced riff to people wearing headphones and running away, looking down. He stared straight ahead, a nautical symbol on the backpack next to his nameless, faceless amplifier. He played, eyes glazed, looking beyond the occasional clank of change falling into his open guitar case.
He didn’t know how to play to a caustic subway station at 8:45 am, with most major trains running uptown, late because of sick passengers and too many bodies, but his tune came from beyond. Once upon a time, he listened to Zepplin and the Stones. In college, his healthy mind embraced and encompassed shoegaze, Explosions in the Sky, and My Bloody Valentine, despite the military acceptance that allowed him to be there, in that establishment. They reminded him every day he was lucky, through their sighed, moneyed comments, crisp navy blazers and lilywhite girlfriends. He stood, quiet, the music in his head. He was always full of music, but this wasn’t the time or place to let anyone know besides that one kid who lived in his dorm. That guy was stoned half the time anyway, and welcomed real-life performances of the Doors which, save that one terrible night, he would happily play anyway.
Now he was back in New York and his family didn’t understand. His friends scoffed at his music and asked when he’d hit the hood with them. He withdrew, and found the Union Square station.
The other night he played and a few students stopped to listen. He wasn’t self-conscious; that had been eradicated years ago. One called to him, “captain,” and under the sad, sharp riffs he heard. His gaze never wavered. Instead, he switched to the melody he learned when he lost her. Some said it was brilliant, others misunderstood. Yet that evening, he saw the crown that his audience laid at his feet and he picked it up and put it on. It was part of the act, now. His heart still hadn’t broken yet, but now he believed that he was true royalty.
“I didn’t need these things. I didn’t need them.”