There is a particular time of night in New York, a witching hour, when trains are spaced twenty minutes apart and febrile commuters have already returned to the soft glow of their apartments to be buried by sleep. Underground on the subway platform, I am there with the last lonely stragglers. There are rats and tired teenagers and finance dudes who’ve clocked nineteen hours at the office and it’s only Monday. I hold my bag a little tighter to my chest, step a little further back from the platform edge. At this time, every screech and tunnel-wind and announcement sounds a hundred decibels louder. And so, when the train arrives, salvation comes with it.
One night, as we are all silently rescued by the MTA, a woman comes onto the carriage wearing weathered shoes and a dirty red coat. She can barely walk, a cane clasped in her hand, and in her eyes she carries the kind of irreverence reserved for the homeless.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen,” she croaks. Reflexively, everyone diverts their eyes. Then, she sings.
Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
She taps her cane, lets her voice fill the silent carriage, coats it like honey, like a second skin. Her voice is thick with soul, she floats through blue-lined plastic like a ghost.
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow.
This is a woman felled by an unforgiving city and when the doors open at the next stop, she leaves only with her cane and her song, ready to face another ream of tired people who’ll always look elsewhere, pretending she doesn’t exist.
Bill Withers’ Lean On Me charts the wide-open valleys between sadness and fulfilment, through human connection. Suffering is universal, he says. We all carry it with us. The antidote is friendship, conversation, companionship. People.
The first time I heard the song, I was in love — the kind of youthful love with a boy where you make playlists for each other. At the time, hearing it reminded me of my adolescence, when I discovered Limewire and Kazaa and music that wasn’t by Beethoven. It was revelatory: artists and musicians knew what I felt, better than I did; the art always spoke more clearly than I ever could.
The boy I was in love with made a playlist and Lean On Me was there. And so, flush with the overwhelming promise of a new beginning, I thought: everything would be alright, we had each other.
Lean On Me begins with a predictable, repeating note progression, laid under a crescendo of hums. The music lulls you into a sense of security. Its simplicity is childlike and it rarely ever strays from this, cradling you in the reassurance of “somebody to lean on.” The musicality is black and white, in a major key; it never tries to deceive. From the outset, like the promise of a relationship, of a friendship, there is something else, someone else, keeping you afloat.
The full-bodied rhymes at the ends of lines, “sorrow” and “tomorrow,” “hand” and “understand,” “road” and “load,” ground the music in a kind of unsurprising lyrical solace. There is ease, simplicity. A gentle satisfaction.
When I first moved to New York, last year, I was often told different iterations of, “People here just don’t have time for you.” Before long, it rang true. In a city packed densely with dreamers and chasers, ghosting and one-hour-Google-calendar-appointment-coffee-dates were simply a way of life.
For the first time in a long time, I felt a deep loneliness. Back at home, I had a web of people, threads strengthened through years and years of loyalty and devotion. Here, I started anew. Friendships slipped through my fingers, washed away by an inability to align schedules.
There was also a new sense of transaction mixed into every interaction. People spoke in an unfamiliar vernacular. Words like “networking” and “agenda,” or phrases like knowing others who were “socially and professionally beneficial,” or meeting people “who could get you where you wanted to be” were commonplace. It ushered in a new normal: the millennial epidemic of busy-ness and hustle took precedence over the kind of human connection I had grown up with.
In the blistering pace of the city, I craved other people who weren’t climbing elsewhere, whose company I could simply revel in. Withers sings, “I just might have a problem that you’d understand,” but it seemed, despite everything, I only had myself.
When the chorus plays the second time, it is thrown into relief against a line of percussion. This is uplifting. It is a crowd clapping on the beat for a song at a concert, people coming together and expressing an embodied unity. The percussion is both aural and physical. Compounding this, Withers uses “we” and “you” throughout, including the listener in this throng. The music renders the people there, for the taking. Yet, in the impatient chaos of New York, and in all the broken promises of falling in and out of love, I could not find these people, anywhere.
The promise of Lean On Me is that human connection happens in an unflinchingly uncomplicated way. It should be easy: you meet someone and you like each other and you spend more time together and you become friends. Happily ever after, just like that.
The reality, for me, is not as easy. Life happens and people become apathetic to others. Our priorities shift to careers and kids and dogs and spores of other things that seem marginally more important. But are they?
As the song reaches its end, the phrase “call me” repeats seven times. A sense of futility is imbued in this circularity, a faltering cry as the music fades out at the end. Like the homeless woman passing us on the train, Withers has asked for somebody to lean on, an assertion morphing into muted desperation, rising and falling to an eventual silence. The imagined “we” and “you” never takes shape. Hope is washed over by melancholy.
The boy I loved with the playlists faded from my life with a dull spreading ache, in the way these things inevitably do. In New York, people have come into my orbit and then left, like tourists in a foreign country. But I’ve learned, as life unfurls, others will take their place. There is this endless transience, this relentless coming and going.
I have been in the city for a year, and the loneliness I felt at the beginning still sighs in still moments. But I have learned that this is a city that people leave. It is a place of ephemerality, and that is what gives it its color.
I am surrounded by people chasing greatness, tethered to these sprawling avenues by grand ideas and unflinching belief in themselves. It is a lonely pursuit.
Here, we live in flux, a constant reminder that everything is temporary, and when you are swept up in impermanence, it is easy to forget that sometimes, we all need somebody to lean on.
It is two in the morning, the homeless woman has just left, the subway carriage hums still louder to take us to the next stop. The man sitting opposite me says, to no one in particular, “Fuck, she was good.”
We look at each other, smile the kind of shy smile that passes between strangers, an acknowledgment that, for a second, we were strung together by this woman’s music.
Then, the train pulls up at the next stop, he gets off, carved out of my life by the listless night.
Photo courtesy of Andy Kiss.