For years, Ron Raffel played guitar in the same spot on the NYC subway. One day, the street performer was gone and I began my search.
It was 16 years ago that I first encountered a street performer named Ron Raffel. I was working at a café in Greenwich Village, and I was late. I rushed from the L train platform at 14th St. and 6th Ave. to the F train platform. There, standing under the tiled station sign, was a man who looked as if life had dealt him a difficult hand. He was tall and thin, had large gaps between his few remaining teeth, and his stringy gray-streaked hair was pulled back in a long ponytail at the nape of his neck. He was dressed like a down-on-his luck rock star, his tight black jeans and cowboy boots either well-worn or fantastic Salvation Army finds. He was playing the guitar.
“No big deal,” I thought. I’d been in NYC a few months, and I’d seen plenty of street performers. I was already picking up the jadedness of any in-a-rush New Yorker: it would take something spectacular to stop me, and I might not even slow down then.
Then Ron began to sing.
I had never heard a voice like his. Take all my favorite raspy-voiced balladeers, all the Tom Waitses, all the late-period Leonard Cohens and Bob Dylans, and let this guy give them some lessons.
“When I first met you, I knew right away…”
I stood there staring. I was getting later by the minute.
“…that I was going to get you to love me one day.”
I was quite sure I had never seen anything so passionate, so heart-wrenching, so necessary to the survival of the person singing it, as this street performer’s song.
Three trains passed before I finally got on one.
My then-partner and I started going to this stop all the time. This street performer was there every day, from morning until night. My partner would give him $50 bills that we were sure he was spending on heroin. We began to talk to him more and more. One night he invited us to a show he was playing in a bar in Williamsburg, back before the area was full of luxury condos. The girl hosting the show was a glib Brooklyn artist. Ron got onstage and sang his heart out, as he always did. We asked her if she knew him, and she said yeah, and he’d played the show for his dinner. She laughed that she’d bought him rice and beans because he had no teeth. We left feeling that something genuine was being made into a merciless spectacle.
A few months later, unbeknownst to me, my partner asked Ron to come play at a party he was hosting in our Bushwick loft. I didn’t know because it was a surprise birthday party for me. Ron, he told me later, was scornful.
“I don’t do parties,” the street performer said.
“It’s a surprise birthday party for my partner,” he said, “who loves your music.”
Ron’s weathered face lit up. “A surprise birthday party?”
I walked into my loft on the night of my 20th birthday, and Ron was there singing. He dedicated his song, “Love’s Got Its Own Way” to my partner and me, and we decided we’d have him play it at our wedding.
Ron slept on our couch that night. In fact, Ron slept on our couch for months.
We were children trying so hard to be adults, to be artists, to let art carry us like a life raft.
He would wake up, drink his vial of pink methadone and tell us stories. We sat at his feet like children listening to their grandfather. There was the story about Bob Dylan giving him a guitar he’d signed. The story of the night he played with Elton John. We believed his stories. Of course we did. We were children trying so hard to be adults, to be artists, to let art carry us like a life raft. And there he was, doing it. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t famous, but he woke up every day and made the most beautiful, sincere, genuine art either of us had ever seen. He was our hero.
After methadone, stories and breakfast, he would put on his sunglasses and head out for the 14th St. and 6th Ave. stop. He would leave us notes telling us how much he loved us and how grateful he was for us.
Sometimes he would get into rages. Like the night he told us about the girl from the Williamsburg bar, and how she had screwed him over, laughed at him, made a fool of him, all while he thought she was interested in him. My partner would hand Ron his guitar and suggest he play that instead of yell. The most beautiful songs would come out of his anger.
After months of Ron staying on our couch, I was home alone one night. I heard his voice come over the answering machine. He sounded upset. He sounded angry. He said he was coming over.
I loved Ron. But I didn’t feel safe there alone with his anger. I turned out the lights and tried to stay quiet as he angrily knocked on the door. He stayed for a while, then left and called from a pay phone, yelling that he knew someone was in there, and it wasn’t very Christian of us to not let him in.
Not long after that, I left the city for a while. I broke up with my partner, but I didn’t forget about Ron. Whenever I went to visit, I’d go by his subway stop. He wasn’t there anymore. I thought of calling local hospitals, local rehabs. He had to be somewhere. But I never called. I didn’t know what to say.
I eventually moved back and started to actively look for him. I spoke to another street performer who was playing in his spot.
“Why’s everybody always looking for Ron Raffel?” he said. “Do you know Ron Raffel?”
“Kind of. He lived with me for a while,” I said.
“He’s not here.”
One day a friend from my writing group posted a video on Facebook. It was one a friend of hers had taken, and in it was Ron Raffel. He was older, he wore sneakers and a pair of sweatpants, and he looked as if life had given him even more to handle. But when he opened his mouth to sing, that same beautiful song came out. That passion. That sincerity.
He was alive.
Later I was moving away again. Priced out of New York City, I got rid of all my things and bought a train ticket to Cleveland. But before I left, I wanted to try one more time to find Ron.
I went to his stop first. Just an empty cavern of a subway station and the rumbles of the passing trains. No Ron.
I walked out of the train and down 14th St. toward Union Square. Where would I go next? That had been his spot, but there were other major hubs he might’ve been in. I knew he was back, or had been. I just had to find out where.
I went to Midtown, even though I didn’t think he’d be caught dead there. I went to Penn Station, to Chinatown, to the East Village. I talked to subway artists. I asked one of them if he knew a lot of the other artists who played underground, if there was a community among them.
He laughed. “No. There’s no community.”
I took the train back to Union Square, not far from Ron’s 6th Ave. stop. As I was walking down the street outside Barnes & Noble, I saw a bunch of men hanging out on the sidewalk. Some were sitting, leaning against a building. All were talking with bluster belied by their worn-down appearances.
With them was Ron Raffel.
He didn’t have a guitar. He didn’t have anything. He was in an old pair of running pants and smoking a cigarette.
He looked so broken. Beaten. This was the man I’d looked upon with awe as a teenager, this was the man who’d held on to his art so tightly, even when life had thrown so much at him.
There was so much I wanted to say.
Would he want to talk to me? Would his tough-talking friends make fun of him for knowing this trans queer person? Would he even recognize me now?
I stood there for a minute, not saying anything. Then, quietly, I said good-bye to a time when this man had done exactly what I wanted to do. I thought of who I was now: not a teenager trying so desperately to become a real artist but an adult who had gone through so much of my own troubles and come out still holding my art.
Quietly, I thanked him without saying a word to him.