Walking down Amsterdam Avenue on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, I was on the lookout for someone I could give twenty bucks to. I surveyed some candidates.
One, a disheveled man in a grimy overcoat, was fishing through a garbage can near Chirping Chicken on 77th Street. He flipped all the contents into a bag, gave them a quick once-over, and then dumped everything back in, minus a few bottles and a magazine he picked out. He repeated the same routine at another can. I considered giving him my 20 dollars, but I didn’t want to risk offense. (He was clearly just doing his thing and could have been confused or put off by such a gesture, I thought.) I decided it would be easier to find someone who was openly asking for funding.
Such as, for instance, a young blonde woman sitting on 63rd and Broadway in front of Starbucks in a T-shirt and tattered jeans with a donation cup and a cardboard sign in her lap that read, “A little kindness goes a long way.” She looked alone and glum. I was curious about how she ended up there and kind of wanted to make her day. But then she started chatting with a guy who seemed to be an associate of hers. Others came by to talk, too, and it struck me she was part of a group or something. I couldn’t tell what her angle was and didn’t feel like interrupting.
I wanted my contribution to be meaningful, but that was hard to gauge. And, to add to the challenge, that afternoon I kept getting distracted by sublime beauties streaming past me. Could I work them into the exercise somehow? Maybe I could hold my very own Broadway Beauty Contest, I thought, with cash prizes for first, second and third place. Or maybe not. I headed over to Central Park instead.
Walking past Sheep Meadow, I heard drumming in the distance. A powerful magnet pulled me in its direction and I wound up near the Bandshell, on a path called The Mall. I’d thought it was a band, but it turned out to be just two guys playing their hearts out. One was furiously pounding two large drums, wearing shades and a Superman shirt, his muscular tattooed arms moving in a blur.
Later, when he stopped for a break, he told me that he and his partner teach drumming to kids and hit the park on weekends. “We play according to the people,” he said. “We become butterflies and we take off.” His partner, shirtless and displaying his sculpted torso, added, “It’s controlled chaos. Nothing’s premeditated.”
When they started up again, over 100 people crowded around, drawn to their high-octane rhythmic dialogue whose Afro-Latin beats reverberated beneath the canopy of elm trees. Onlookers, who were of all ages and ethnicities, tossed bills onto a growing pile in a gray collection bag.
This was a celebration of drums and of life itself: Random strangers brought together to share a vibrant moment on earth. Entranced, I hung out for an hour and forgot about the money until, swept up in the communal experience, I pulled out the twenty dollars and unceremoniously dropped it in the bag. It was the feeling of being part of something that extended beyond myself, of transcending the boundaries that ordinarily separate me from the crowds out in public, that inspired me to give—as a token of membership in the ephemeral group of wanderers.
The sound of the drums gradually faded as I walked off, confident the money was well spent.
Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a freelance journalist in New York. He contributes to The New York Times and his work has also appeared in Fast Company, Wired, Slate, and New York magazine.