Rudy Lawless

The subway near my apartment has elevators to get to the tracks, and as I get in one on Saturday night I hold the door for an older man who’s pushing a large potted plant on a dolly. It’s wrapped in a big plastic bag.

“That a tree?” I ask.

“Trees. I love trees,” he says. “When they sway in the wind it’s like they’re singing together." Which is an amazing thought, and I tell him so.

I ask about the tree and he says he’s coming from the home of a close friend who had died five years before. He and the man’s other friends had decided to each take a piece of the friend’s favorite tree and plant it near their homes to keep him with them.

"That’s beautiful,” I tell him.

“He was a beautiful man” he says in a way we wish someone would say about us one day.

Together we carry the dolly down a set of stairs and keep talking. He talks about growing up with older brothers, tough times after World War II, life in Kip’s Bay. Around us people are staring: Why are we talking? Are we together? Someone explain the dynamic here.

His stories need no prompting. He shifts suddenly to taxes, how much money was taken in the ‘50s compared to today. “Maybe he’s a crazy after all” I think, disappointed, and start looking for an exit.

The train pulls up and as we get on together I say, “I’m going to pop my headphones in, but it was a real pleasure meeting you.” “You too,” he says, and we shake.

Twenty minutes later I’m getting off at 14th St and I wave, making sure he sees me as I go. He motions me back to the door hurriedly.

“My name’s Rudy Lawless. Google me,” he says. And that was it.

As I exit the station I search and find him immediately: a jazz drummer, he’s played with Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, and Etta James. A figure in Harlem, teaches classes and evangelizes jazz. Later I tell a knowledgable friend. “You met Rudy Lawless on the subway??”

Earlier, on the Clark St. platform, I asked if I could take his picture. He posed with a flourish, and we looked together and laughed. 

Do you Google yourself, Rudy Lawless? Let’s get coffee.