The first time I met Richard Bartee, whose alias was the ‘D’ Train Poet, I was riding a Manhattan subway. I noticed him right away. Big, black, and beautiful, he was busy breaking the unwritten, but widely adhered to, laws of the NYC underground: mind your own business; bury your face in a newspaper (nowadays, your cell phone); and, above all, don’t talk to strangers. He approached me with a twinkle in his eye and an irresistible question. “Would you like to see a picture of the next savior of the world?”
I had no idea what he was up to, but I was intrigued by the warm, mischievous way about him, and I wanted to play along. “I’d love to!” Isaid with a smile. He took out a mirror and held it up to my face.
“Surprise, you’re it!”
I was twenty years old, out on my own for the first time, a college dropout aspiring to find a place in the world, never mind a savior of anything.
Every few months I would run into Richard around the city. One night I was strolling through Greenwich Village smoking pot. I stumbled upon Richard talking to a gathering of teenagers sitting on a stoop, captivated by his charisma. As I got closer I heard enough to realize he was using his gifts of rap, poetry, and humor to encourage them to stay away from smoking.
Just as I started to turn around and quickly walk the other way, he spotted me. He called me over and gave me a big bear hug as I inconspicuously dropped the joint to the sidewalk and braced myself for his reaction to the pungent cloud of smoke around me.
Neither his nose nor his heart chose to register the aroma, and he immediately engaged me in the sort of conversation one does their best to avoid when one is stoned.
He asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a street peddler, but that I was also a singer-songwriter and in training to become a workshop leader and a practitioner of rebirthing. He became animated and excited. “I’ve been wanting to find out about rebirthing!” he exclaimed.
Before I had time to guess what was coming next he had taken a pocket tape recorder out of his briefcase, pressed the record button, and said, “ Scott, a professional rebirther, will now give a short talk on rebirthing!” He put the mike up to my mouth, and I managed to sputter out a few sentences on the therapeutic breathing technique that had been rocking my world at the time.
Although he had strong feelings about living a drug-free life, Richard never mentioned the marijuana. He had even stronger feelings about loving and accepting people as they were, seeing the beauty and magnificence in them even when they weren’t yet seeing it in themselves.
We kept running into each other in odd places and through it all a friendship emerged. I nicknamed him Swami Subwaynanda, and he liked it. Richard’s subway ministry was a big part of his life, and the name fit him.
A spiritual teacher I was studying with at the time warned her students to avoid the subways. She said the vibrations down there were too dense and could be very draining to sensitive souls seeking to serve humanity.
I was glad that Richard hadn’t studied with her.
Anyone who doubts Jesus’ prophecy that we would one day do greater works than he has never seen Richard raise a crowd of people in a subway car from the dead.
Once I saw him get almost everyone on the train to chant “More hugging, less mugging!” This was his signature slogan. I started
spotting it on window decals and bumper stickers all over the city.
Richard, who had once been a police officer in Syracuse, had discovered that he preferred preventing crime with creativity and love to fighting crime with might.
Besides being a blazing light in the tunnels of the city, Richard was also a political activist, a community organizer, a gospel singer, a rap artist, a minister, a gifted and moving poet, and a great improviser. We shared wonderful times together making up songs in the moment, and he was a big supporter of my newly emerging musical career. I was thrilled to have a man twenty years my senior believe in me so enthusiastically.
One tune of mine, Follow Your Heart, was his clear favorite. “That song’s meant to be BIG, Scott! The whole world needs to know about that song!” I had written and sung it as a ballad. Richard thought it was more suited for gospel. He performed and recorded it at his church. When he shared the tape with me, it was so full of his heart and soul I could hardly recognize my own song! He had brought it to life, just as he did everything and everyone around him.
Richard was a Christian, and loved Jesus in a big way. He was filled with a sense of purpose, and considered himself a missionary of sorts.
But he didn’t share his church or his religion – he shared his Spirit.
I had never before met a traditional Christian who so honored everyone else’s spiritual and religious points of view. His missionary position, pun intended, was that everybody belonged on top.
When I moved to California in 1990, I didn’t keep in touch with Richard. Early in 2003, through the grace of Google, he found my website, and found me. After an email exchange we had a wonderful phone conversation, catching each other up on the too many years we had been out of touch.
Feeling like the prodigal son returning, I apologized for how long I had been out of contact. He welcomed me with open arms, and expressed a strong desire to hear the music that had come out of me since leaving N.Y.C. I sent him nine CD’s – thirteen years of material he had not heard before.
Two months later Richard’s wife phoned to tell me that he had just had a heart attack on a bus and didn’t make it. She wanted me to know that he had spoken of me often over the years and had loved me deeply, and also that he had been thoroughly enjoying the music I had sent.
I told her how much he had meant to me, that he had infused me with his passion in such a way that my life had been forever touched and blessed.
Connecting once again just before his death was such a gift for both of us.
And now I’d like to speak directly to my friend.
PS. I am still offering custom made, personalized song portraits, radio ready and recorded in the studio for $500. Starting in 2022, the price will go up to reflect the true value of such a gift.
Richard, I will always be grateful for your example of fearless living and loving, as well as the sincere interest you took in me. I will always remember you holding that mirror to my face the first time we met. Back then I thought you were delightfully crazy, and ever since I’ve been aspiring to reach your level of insanity. You passed your torch on to me and countless others. Help us hold it high, dear brother, and continue to support us in being the light that we are, the light that you showed me in the mirror, the light in the tunnel. I love you and give thanks for your precious gifts to me and to this planet.
(This story is a chapter from my memoir, Teach me How To Love, True Stories That Open The Heart, which can be found on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Teach-Me-How-Love-Touches/dp/061549210X)