Subway ride home, five o’clock: I’m reading the New Yorker. A man in a knee-length down jacket and old shoes slips through the throng of commuters.
“Excuse me, pardon me, sorry, excuse me,” he says, making his way to the middle of the car. His purpose, his ceremonious tone, is like the one panhandlers use when they hold court between stops. I bury my nose in my magazine with reflexive, deferential embarrassment.
“I’m selling Duracell batteries,” he declares with the flourish of a salesman from a movie in the 1940s. “Not Dinacell, not Puracell,” he clarifies, “Duracell batteries, the one and only…” I peer through shoulders and handbags, but I can’t see him. The only people I have seen sell batteries on the subway spoke the barest monotone English, traipsing downcast through the cars in a beeline for the door.
“These are the best batteries on the market, and I am selling them for only one dollar…and I DELIVER these batteries right TO you…” he goes on, his announcer’s voice soaring over the din. You would think he was selling encyclopedias. Fuller brushes.
The he pitches the batteries in perfect Spanish.
Then he does it again in French.
I remember reading about a homeless man in Riverside Park who had just died; when his family was contacted in Alabama, it was confirmed that he held a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. When approached for assistance, he had angrily insisted he was fine, and went back to studiously rearranging the trash cans in his stretch of park.
People are laughing by this time, bewildered at why this man with such oratorical finesse is pushing batteries on a subway train, which is right up there with selling Chiclets on the street in Mexico. Who is he? What has befallen him? Does anyone buy his batteries?
My stop comes, and the story is bookended by the closing doors; the Best Battery Seller That Ever Lived is whisked uptown, and I wonder where is home.