There is a wizard in Washington Square. He wears a billowing cloak, bundled in a pile on his shoulders; he is a tall creature, and with the ebony fabric wrapped up to his ears, he looks even larger. The rest of the cloak drapes down his legs, swaying in fraying threads at his ankles. His jeans—black, too—are too short for him, yielding to gray ankles and ragged shoes. He is pale all over, with skin dead blue pale like a corpse. His hair is like pale wheat in need of a glinting scythe. For all his magic, he must cut it in the dim reflection of an out-of-service train with a pocket knife.
He seeks out the sun on the eastern side in the mornings. After all, it is January, and the wind is a choppy wave that encases him in a smooth shell of stiff numbness. The baron's fingers are slow on his blackberry. The foreigner's lips stumble over lolling syllables. The playwright curls her fingers around her smoldering Dunhill, seeking the warmth at its fading edge. They are all faces the wizard knows. They, too, seek warmth, and the sun knows this well, floats through corridors of streets, gleams wickedly in lonely window panes. Even in the light, January is an inescapable, gnawing cold as the city grinds its teeth against the onslaught of winter.
The wizard has one companion—his black piano. A tarp lies over it, dark and magicked to fight off deterioration. Tucked inside are slippery tubs of vaseline. The wheels whistle when the breeze hits them right, and the legs bear many scuffs and nicks. A carving on the side reads, 'This machine kills fascists'.
The piano sleeps outside with the wizard. It is his only semblance of home.
He plays Chopin on Sunday as the distant bells of St. Patrick's Cathedral strike blow after blow. The pigeons churn around and around him like silver-clad knights. They settle on the gray oaks until his fingers grow too stiff to play any longer, then they soar to find some other form of entertainment, chasing after the cabs that roam the city like yellow ogres.
It is harder for him to escape his boredom. When misery swirls in the cavernous expanse of his limbs— hungry but always without food, tired but always without rest, longing but always without peace— he summons wraiths out of the empty streets. Their chittering sounds like the screeching of train breaks, and they cackle at his cold shell of a body, but they are company. They swirl from grates and scatter in puffs, reaching out with incorporeal tendrils— wrapping gleaming, moist claws around his throat. Only then does he send them away.
Sometimes, he will leave his black piano and walk down to Chelsea. He imagines the maroon lanes on either side of the road come from the blood of the artists who dared to dream in a city so insatiable. Within the cracks of the pavement, he speculates, smiling, are clots from lyricists and musicians and painters and photographers. And, if the wizard looks long and hard, he can imagine his name within the coagulating bubbles.
He plays every day. When asked why he says for freedom. But the truth is he would chain himself to the subway before leaving New York, before leaving behind his black piano and the other souls trapped within the groaning alleyways. It is not easy to be a performer, the devil had said, long ago, with a knowing grin; he was already palming the wispy edges of his soul. You will have to move heaven and earth, and even then, you will not make it. Even then, it will not be enough.
Sometimes, the wizard horrifies himself. Curls up underneath the cold embrace of his black piano and shakes apart with every sound in the dark. His fingers, white and slimy as mackerel, curl around protection charms. They are not enough. He bares his teeth at wandering footsteps and buries his freezing limbs tighter and tighter in his cloak. Spits up bile after seeking out dinner in alleyway bins. The bad moments are dredges of Hell, if Hell is cold and impersonal, if Hell reflects absurdity’s deranged smile. His black piano shudders and shakes against the tempest of the night, and those are the times that remind the wizard of the totality of his isolation. And he, alone, must ward off the wretched hands of the night.
As long as the night lasts, though, the sun always comes around with its sardonic grin. It congratulates the wizard with its temporary warmth, whispering about another night braved, and the wizard is not prideful enough to decline its comfort.
It is not all bad. Children hold their parents' hands with fat, chubby fingers and God in their eyes. They pinch crisp bills, crinkling them with excited apprehension. A girl leaves a sweet wafer that makes his face flush with the heat of a sugar rush, a balm against the cold. A baby waddles up and holds the wizard's ugly hands, rubbing the vaseline for him. A prodigy plays beside him, sheepish and young. Other sorcerers stop for him, too. A woman in a crochet cap and sneakers sets her bags down on an adjourning bench. She begins to dance. The only proof that she is real is the scuffing of the soles of her shoes on the pavement. Magic courses in tendrils through the air. She dances for hours. She dances warmth into the wizard’s thin and bony fingers. She dances life into the empty corpses of the other homeless lounging around. She dances apathy into love. Her loose clothes billow around her like open curtains on a June evening. He sways in his shawl as his bones croak in the cold. She smiles and takes his hands when he can play no longer, tracing stories onto the chapped lines of his palms. She leaves after dropping a tulip and a fifty in the black jar he’s left out. She comes back every few weeks. Each time is like the first, and it is visitors like her that remind him why he chose this life.
He would not give this up. Not for fame, not for money. Not for a love that loves him back. He is the wizard on the eastern side of Washington Square, and after decades, the sun is the one that seeks him out. It is the wraiths that summon him. And it is his name whispered in tire screeches on bloody streets in Chelsea.
This fictional story is based on a real man I saw performing in Washington Square. His name is Colin Huggins and he had become homeless. He pushes his piano around the city to try to make enough money to live. His playing was indeed magical.
Homelessness is a rampant issue in America, and sometimes that is easy to forget. If you liked this story, spare a moment to donate to the man who made it possible. His venmo is @everythingwillbeok.