The Death Of A Subway Poet

One snowy April afternoon on a New York bus a large caramel skinned Black man with the built of a former football player he had been, dapperly dressed in a good suit had a sudden massive heart attack; he died instantly as he sat looking out on a city street. It was a rough irony that Richard Bartee, the famous ‘Avenue D Poet’ of the 70s perished in his seat at only 59, a trekker still taking public transportation. Fame in New York lasts as long as yesterday’s publicity release. Nowadays it’s almost always connected with publicists, money, some pitch to spend a shekel or two on a very mortal divinity.

Some of our most powerful revolutions are changes in perception rather than military forays. The map changes every century or so; the planet and the nature of its miserable residents stays the same. The first human being to see that our species lives better when it embraces love of one’s neighbor and takes up charity to strangers was a more important rebel in history than any general. Richard was that kind of social force. He must have seen the glum and solitary looks of pilgrims on the D Train for a while before he decided they were alone and suffering, it was all about nothing, he wanted to do something about it.

After a few minutes of Richard’s amusing and witty verse people in the car began to enjoy each other, not merely his performance. Richard’s discourse was deeper than entertainment. He was clever and articulate; he breathed out an implied feeling that we were all in fact in the same train heading underground in a world of darkness in all directions, a communal experience with its exhilaration as well as its terrors we could share.

Though never an ideologue, always a man with a practical remedy for any difficulty in the classical American manner, Richard was one of the last of the 60s stalwarts who become a new York legend without media afflatus. He spent about ten years on the Avenue D line taking over subway cars, reading his elegant and witty poetry, offering a copy of it ironically for 26 cents, making a lot of friends among formerly glum underground commuters.

Probably a million New Yorkers during those years asked themselves, who is this guy interrupting my feeling lousy’ They found themselves after a moment, seeing he was well dressed, wasn’t asking for money, was all generosity, amused and laughing at Richard’s sallies. Richard’s cleverly rhymed verse was both deep and simple; it went to the heart but it spent time in the upper skull where the intelligence lies too.

As talented as he was as poet, artificer of fables, and performer, Richard in those D Train days was making another unstated point. The D Train was in those days a subway with a totally White population. Richard was an Afro-American who had shown up in the middle of White world to give to the needy. Since most people are miserable, everybody likes to be amused, in one way or another Richard was able to dispense charity to all while asking nothing for it.

That act alone had to resonate among the passengers, perhaps wondering themselves how they had come to be so empty, unhappy or vegetatively phlegmatic about their own existence, asking themselves what swagger, bravery or largesse they had within themselves had they chosen to offer their own portion to the cosmic waters as Richard did. Richard probably made people he never knew he touched a little more courageous or at least able to pause and have a second opinion about their mortality ever afterwards.

In those days and the next three decades Richard gave out probably over a million cards for nothing with his central and signature epigram: More hugging, less mugging. He didn’t have wealth so he gathered up goods he saw on the streets and brought them home to give to other people.

Most of Richard’s life never surfaced as spectacularly as pure legend as his self-invented subway career. Nobody saw his full range. He was very often in city schools on his own with no salary reading poetry, singing and telling stories. He made a great case for literacy to kids. Richard himself had come from the bottom; he had an extended family but on the vaporous side.                He had been once in his natal Florida a high school football all-American; he was one of the best young quarterbacks in the United States. It set him apart. His football genius got him into college. With this background Richard could talk to the high and the low equally well. Though he always lived middle class as an adult, he had been both up and down.

Though a genius, Richard fell through the cracks mostly in life; in a craven world where drones are valued even in the Arts this maverick among mavericks was ironically sometimes honored for talents he had by the truckload. A Syracuse cop kicked off the force for insubordination when he refused to lie and send a designated local prey to the slammer, though lying and plea bargaining is our normal justice system style, it didn’t go down with Richard.

Later he did a month of jail time in Chicago during the 1968 Yippie fracases. Once he showed me the concavities in his skull where the Chicago cops had beaten him. They had tried to kill him; they put him in the hospital. They were very big dents. Richard talked about the experience not with rancor but with awe.              A 60s stalwart, Richard was everybody’s instant champion. In the three hour funeral service afterwards that Al Sharpton among others attended and spoke at, few noted in their orations how much Richard was first of all for life, for humanity.

It wasn’t merely an opinion or a posture; Richard was on the battlefront where one can look around and wonder where all the makers of speeches had gone after they had run their moth about some folly or atrocity. He never trashed anybody or anything; never was anything but a happy solder. He didn’t offer rage or splenetic misery even when injured; he had solutions, charity, a kind of rich bountifulness. With his persuasive charm in the service of virtue he had the charismatic magic to make the worst people feel better than they were.

Richard was always up, never surly, mean or despairing. Au contraire. He was in fact a great consoler; he could see into the hearts of people and heal them. He could listen to woe of others and offer elevated spiritual advice; he felt only compassion for those who had been uncivil to him. ‘When you got to jail somebody has taken over your life for a little while; you should feel as they’ve put you on vacation,’ he once said to me. It’s not as if Richard didn’t have satire in him or wasn’t a gadfly. He offered his discourse sheathed in a kind of amiable joy.

Richard had beyond that gift for felicity and healing, the quickest mind I have ever encountered; he had not merely enormous depth and emotional power but a flawless photographic memory. I once asked him about his education in Florida. ‘Separate but equal,’ he said with gleeful irony.

In an age in which for one reason or another people have stopped trusting each other, intimates or strangers, Richard was always an advocate of healing. His diverse remedies took various forms. He run in his last years shows in lower Manhattan bars or raw food spas; he sold filters to purify water. He was a fierce enemy of smoking. Though his local church he counseled ex-convicts returning to a tough world from prison. Richard as few of us do understood the tremendous power of virtue. It was an easier sell that one might think in his lifetime. He was living in a world in which people had tried everything else.

His faith in goodness was never shallow. If one got to know him, though he was never a confessional type, at a polarity from  narcissism, though he was one who rarely spoke about himself, one would glean in passing some of his lie’s own sorrows and losses.       He was like many charming loners a sensual man and very physical. He had had a cluttered life. He also had had his struggles with children; he had gone through the classical agony of parents, seeing their difficulties without being able to live for them.

One heard about these burdens only after he had been able to make peace a seeming place of ashes. He had wrestled with all of these checks to his spirit; he had found some lesson, consolation or dark guidance in them. One only heard about his woes as resolved dilemmas, never as complaints.

Merely walking down the street with him was an adventure. The miracle Richard had been was his legacy. It was a prodigal benefice he didn’t leave in a will. He gave it away to everyone.