Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
The anonymous narrator describes a local celebrity of sorts who regularly visits his east-side neighborhood: a large black man who pushes a hand truck and makes various kinds of deliveries. What distinguishes him from the others who make deliveries is that he sings loudly and attracts considerable attention: “The man who sings is the object of a lot of response and the victim of a million silent and spoken jokes, but there is no stopping him, because he really loves to sing.” Although the black and Latino men admire him, and even envy his complete lack of self-consciousness, they also seem embarrassed by him because he may appear to be an old-fashioned stereotype to people of other races. However, this huge, singing figure seems to disturb white businesspeople because they think he is embarrassing members of his own race.
As the narrator studies the varied responses to this embarrassing but evocative figure, he notices other elements that intensify crowd reactions. To make matters worse, the singing man often forgets the words to the songs that he bellows out and occasionally even loses the thread of the melody—a situation that requires him to improvise melodies of his own. Blacks and Latinos think that white businesspeople regard the singing man as an extension of them, because he also is black, as if the white businesspeople expect them all to burst into song. In short, this figure initiates what the narrator calls a “street game.”
Making the situation even more tense are the types of songs that the singing man loves to perform. These include songs like “Old Man River,” from a former age that no one except hardened bigots, sentimental cynics, and irrelevant sleepwalkers want to recall. Even with these songs, the singing man often forgets the words, leaving his multicultural audience torn between wanting to help him remember and wishing that he would forget such politically incorrect songs. Through all this, the man appears unshaken by anything. The effect of “Old Man River” on the neighborhood is that it creates a “silence like a suddenly emptied city, crystallizes, and forms a hard edge.”
The singing man saves his greatest song for his exit from this racially mixed area on Park Avenue South and Union Square. His “song of songs” is the Irish folk classic “Danny Boy.” His eyes shine, his shoulders move, and he tosses his head and sings.
On an afternoon just before Christmas, the narrator sees the singing man walking by the subway entrance at Union Square. Vapor emerges from the man’s lips as they form the words to “Danny Boy.” He is aware of nothing but his song. The narrator has his last view of the man as his voice rises and breaks in the second octave. Though the narrator loses sight of him, he continues to hear him sing.