Sun glints off the roofs of brick-white houses, the entire landscape a yellow haze of sunset. The train rumbles along wooden tracks and hard steel rails, high above cookie-cutter neighborhoods. The people there, they probably don’t look up to see the puffs of white clouds floating above them. Someone once told me that white and black were the absence of color – cotton candy without the pink, bubble baths without glistening, quivering rainbows. These clouds are so white, so big, so ethereal that they’re like holes in the great blue mass of sky. When we were kids, we used to color on white sheets of paper – blue for the sky, green for the grass, yellow for the sun, but we simply drew the scrolly outlines of clouds and left them blank. The absence of color.
Maya Angelou died this week – the same day I saw New York for the first time – careening in by train and standing there in Penn Station letting the masses of people wash over me. Washington DC is diverse, yes, but New York is different. Caucasian, African, Chinese, British, Czech – callous, refined, hipster, gangster, man in the black suit on an iPhone, girl in running shorts staring at the reflective metal above her head. In DC, we can peg a person’s class by how they dress, what time they ride the Metro, posture, social face, or lack thereof. I’d heard that in New York there are no social faces on the subway, and there are no classes either, really They live their lives in public – on the subway, in the park, walking beside you on the street. The girl in business casual slumped over her phone in a subway seat, the young guys with braided beards and skinny jeans laughing by the doors, and the construction worker with her yellow hard hat slung over her shoulder like a purse.
It’s another world, New York City – quirky, off-putting, surprising, rawer than you might expect. It reminds me of London – the sidewalk curbs loaded with people waiting to cross at all times of the day. I walk with the crowds every morning and evening on my way in and out of Georgetown, but in New York City and London I walk with them all times of day or night. There are always people. I want to cap that sentence off with a descriptor because it feels incomplete to say that there are always people without assigning them a specific place or action, but in New York City, there are always people.
I’m rather ashamed to say that I’ve never read any of Maya Angelou’s work. Yes, yes, standard high school curriculum and all that jazz aside, I still have her name on my never-ending to-read list. Everyone I know has written eloquent tributes to her on Facebook, or used 140 characters of profound thought on Twitter to describe the writer who changed their world. She has not yet changed my world, and given my ignorance about her work and the broken wireless on this train that prevents me from Googling her famous quotes, I’d probably write a damned awful tribute to her. But that doesn’t stop me from admiring her ripples.
There are, of course, many famous people in the world. Some of whom, the world might even slow down to take notice of when they die. But when Maya Angelou died, the world came to a screeching standstill. My Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded. The girl in washed jeans on the subway was reading Angelou. Her black and white photo sits in the window of The Strand, staring out at passersby on the street. Everyone knows that Maya Angelou has departed this life, and in some strange way, her absence is like the puffy, colorless clouds that cut holes in the still blue sky. I admire the fact that one person will be missed by hundreds of thousands of people – there’s something beautiful and unifying in that simultaneous outcry of sorrow and respect. I’m afraid of being too verbose, but I cannot voice my admiration otherwise.
We often divide our lives into black and white, right and left, right and wrong. Pushing things into neat little categories or else we’ll be too quirky, too off-putting, too surprising, a little too raw. But the portrait of Maya Angelou in the Strand window is in shades of black and white that meld into gray, and as the world honors one of the century’s great writers, the girl is no longer afraid to read Angelou on the subway and the boy feels that he can finally express public admiration for the writer who changed his world. There are always people who can unite a divided generation regardless of how they dress, what time they ride the Metro, posture, social face, hipster, gangster and the like – Maya Angelou was one of them.