For our fourth assignment we were told to take a walk. On this walk we were to be hyper aware of our surroundings, especially the people walking past us. Picking one of these people we encountered, we were to turn them into a character and write about them. My muse came unexpectedly. I was not on a walk nor was I thinking about my assignment. I was on the A coming home from a late night of tapas and sangria with a friend when a man entered my car. I immediately started daydreaming about what his story might be. It wasn’t until the next day, with a more clear head, that I realized I had found my character.
As he packs up his guitar in its hard case with peeling stickers and a hole in the top, people go out of their way to walk on the opposite side of the platform. They watch him from the corner of their eyes, their paranoid ears hearing the ramblings of a man with mental illness where there is actually singing. They hold their breath hoping that the inevitable smell of homelessness won’t penetrate their delicate noses. They would never guess the man sitting alone at the end of the subway car in a long tattered peacoat with frayed shoe laces and pants too large for his towering frame owns a beautiful apartment in the West Village. There are two things that would give away his secret if anyone let their eyes linger a bit longer on his appearance: his hands are always clean and his hair is always shiny.
He bought his home shortly after his graduation from Juilliard in the spring of 1971 with the inheritance left by his forever supportive parents. The vaulted ceilings still reverberate his tenor voice beautifully. He still looks out through the windows two times his height at the peaceful, tree lined street below as his fingers dance across his piano.
The decade following his parents death and his graduation was a blur of performances at random jazz clubs in the city, going on tour with various up-and-coming folk singers and playing Waltz in A Flat Major in the dead of night because it brought his parents momentarily back to life. (Their vivid memories gliding around his childhood home laughing and begging him to play more.) He has always been happiest watching others dance, smile and enjoy themselves while he provides the musical back drop. There were brief times of utter drunkenness and even briefer love affairs. He could never give up even an ounce of his playing to fall fully in love, fully into alcoholism or fully into anything. Music was his mistress, he liked to say, only half joking.
Mr. Cullen didn’t live a completely sad existence. He did have fabulously happy moments. These moments always occurred on subway platforms with a harmonica at his lips and a guitar on his lap. It began by accident, one warm night in April 1981. He had been at a friend’s party entertaining their guests with waltzes, Def Leppard covers, and New Orleans style blues tunes. He mopped his brow and cursed that the wait for the F was always so long. He willed the air around him to move instead of sitting like a weight on his shoulders. In a delirious state he removed his guitar from it’s case and began strumming. The air around him immediately felt lifted. He began plucking out a tune he’d heard earlier that day on the radio by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie--”Endless Love”. He didn’t see them, the tipsy couple to his left who had begun dancing, but he heard them giggling. He stopped playing and watched them haphazardly sway back and forth when the girl exclaimed, “Don’t stop! I just want to dance!” So Arthur began again this time with more purpose. He played two of his favorite songs before the F finally rolled in.
Some would say he never lived up to his true potential after he lost his parents, but for Arthur, sharing his music with his fellow New Yorkers was exactly what he felt he was made to do. From that April day forward he performed in various subway stations at least once a week. He never asked for money, he only wanted to see the busy New Yorkers smile, tap their feet or even dance. And that is the payment he has gotten for the last 34 years. That’s what has filled him with joy and made his life a happy life, even if those on the subway car with him can’t see it.