September 18, 2002

A Caged Bird Sings on the Subway

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2002

I was in the usual subway daze, standing in the middle of the crowded car, holding onto the pole above my head, staring at nothing in particular. With my mind writing and re-writing passages for my novel, I had retreated into my own world. The train arrived at 96th Street, and that’s when I noticed the young black girl in a purple t-shirt and jeans sitting down in front of me. She looked no older than 12 or 13 and she had long braided hair. Not the corn-rows, which every kid seems to be wearing these days, but old school braids, more similar to the ones worn by the Williams’ sisters of tennis fame. Her studious eyes were fixated on the book she was reading. I glanced down and saw she was clutching Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I had read her book when I lived in Atlanta and again when I was living in Seattle and I must say it was one of the most influential books on my life as a person and writer. Maya Angelou’s auto-biographical novel candidly depicts her life as a southern black child, from being shipped off to live with her grandmother in Arkansas when she was four, to the harsh and graphic description of the events around her molestation and rape when she was eight, and then to giving birth to a son in California when she was just sixteen just before WWII. When I read it the first time I was blown away by her honesty, candor and bluntness about the events in her life.

Witnessing this young woman reading powerful American literature in today’s consumer-hip-Hollyweird-MTV domination of the world’s youth was a blessing and a sincere gift of random inspiration. An empty seat opened up next to her and I sat down. I looked over to see what page she was on and she turned to me and smiled.

"What are you reading?" I asked.

With a warm grin she quietly said, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and shifted her book so I could see the title.

"That’s an amazing book. It blew me away when I read it almost a decade ago. Do you like Maya Angelou?"

She smiled again and grew more attentive to our conversation.

"Yeah," she said, speaking a little louder, "She’s my favorite poet too. I want to be a writer because of her. Well, I want to be a lawyer or a writer."

I smirked and nodded my head. I’m talking books with a writer.

"Wow, that’s great. Stick to writing, the world needs more writers."

"O.K. Do you like Maya Angelou?"

As the subway raced past Columbia University, I launched into one of my infamous rambling lectures on racism and the South and empowerment among young women, especially minority women, and she sat and listened and at times I knew she had no clue what I was talking about, but she was polite and asked several thought provoking questions, it’s then that I figured out she’s no ordinary kid riding the subway.

"What do you do?" she inquired.

"I’m a writer."

"What do you write?"

"I’m working on a novel and I write a bunch of other stuff too," I explain.

"Are you famous?"

“Am I famous?” I laughed while the train pulled out of the station. I thought of something Mona reminds me everyday: “McGrupp, you’re famous in your own mind for sure!”

"No," I humbly began to answer, until my ego took over and continued, "Well, not yet."

"You could have fooled me, " she said, "You look famous."

We both laughed.

"How so?"

"I dunno, it’s like..." she paused, "you have some sort of… I dunno. You just look famous. And you’re the first white man I met who read all of Maya Angelou’s books."

"Well I’m a nerd. Who else do you read?"

"I like Alice Walker, Zora Hurston and Langston Hughes."

Wow. I’m impressed. I don’t know any adults who have read one of these authors, let alone all three. "Langston Hughes? How old are you? Are you in high school yet?"

"Yeah, I’m twelve and a half, and go to junior high."

"Man, I don’t know many adults who read the quality of writing that you are. Keep up the good work. It will only make you a better writer."

"Thanks. I really love to read. My aunt she work’s at Barnes & Noble’s downtown. She gets a discount and gives me all kinds of books. So who should I be reading next?"

"James Baldwin. Have you ever read him?"

"No." she said while she unzipped her backpack and took out a pen and started to write his name in a little Spiderman notebook. When she was done she looked up and yelled, "Who else?!"

"Richard Wright, but I have a feeling you already read Native Son and Black Boy."

She nodded. "Who do you read?"

"Henry Miller. Charles Bukowski. Ken Kesey. Dostoevsky. Kurt Vonnegut. Spalding Gray. Thomas Friedman. Hunter Thompson. Philip Roth."

She wrote down all the names and I kept on listing authors as the subway reached the tip of northern Manhattan.

"I think you should wait a few years before you read some of those guys."

I realized I had a book on me, Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray. Mona had bought it for me at lunchtime for $2 from a street vendor in midtown. I pulled it out of my briefcase and handed it to her. Her eyes swelled with excitement.

"I want to tell you that you should read this is a few years. But I have a feeling if you are as good as a writer as I think you are, you will be reading it very soon."

"Thanks!" she said as the train approached 215th Street and she quickly gathered up all her things, making preparations to leave. Before she got up, she opened the Spalding Gray novel and handed me her pen.

"Do you think you could autograph my book, mister?"

Shocked, flattered and inspired, I snatched the pen from her hand and said, "What’s your name?"

"LaTonya. What’s yours?"

"McGrupp. Tenzin McGrupp."

I scribbled something to the effect, "Keep writing, LaTonya. The world needs your voice. Salukis, McG."

As she got up to leave she turned around, smiled and said, "Thanks, McGrupp. I hope to read your book someday soon."

Me too.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

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