Living the Soulful Life
Portrait of a Subway Swami
By Scott Kalechstein



The first time I met Richard, commonly known as 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 city’s underground: Mind your own business. Bury your face in a newspaper. 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 humanity?”

 I had no idea what he was up to, but immediately I trusted the playful warmth he was radiating. “I’d love to!” I said with a smile. He took out a mirror and held it up to my face. “Surprise, you’re it!”

‘Not it!’ I was twenty years old, out on my own for the first time and struggling to make ends meet, hoping to find a little self-esteem in the process. I was hawking laundry bags on the streets to pay the rent. I felt light years away from being a savior.

Every few months I would run into Richard here and there. For a while I kept my distance. His courageous self-expression held up an uncomfortable mirror and showed me how much I was hiding.

One night I was strolling through Greenwich Village smoking pot. I stumbled upon Richard connecting with a collection of teenagers who were sitting on a stoop, captivated by his charisma. As I got closer I heard enough to realize he was using his gifts of poetry and humor to inspire them to stay away from smoking. Just as I started to turn around and walk the other way, he spotted me. I froze. 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. But either his nose or his heart chose not 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 about peddling laundry bags, but also that I was in training to become a rebirther. 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 Kalechstein, professional rebirther, on re-birthing.” He put the mike up to my mouth, and I managed to sputter out a few sentences on the simple breathing process that had changed my life.

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, and seeing the beauty 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 souls seeking to serve humanity. I was glad that Richard hadn’t studied with her.

Anyone who doubts Jesus’s prophecy that we would one day do greater works 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, 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 an activist, a gospel sing-er, a rapper, a minister, a gifted and moving poet, and a great improviser of songs. We shared wonderful times together making up songs in the moment, and he was a big fan 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!” A hopelessly white folksinger, I wrote 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! 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. And I had never before met a traditional Christian who so honored everyone else’s spiritual and religious points of view. His missionary position was that everybody belonged on top.

When I moved to California in 1990 I didn’t keep in touch with Richard. Early this year he found me, through the grace of the Internet. I called him and we had a wonderful 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 my CD’s- eight discs and thirteen years of material he had not heard before.

A few 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. I fought back tears and shock as I listened to what she had to say. 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 Spirit in such a way that my life had been forever touched and blessed.

Re-connecting just before he made his passing was such a gift for both of us.

Richard, I will always be grateful for your example of fearless living and loving, as well as the interest you took in me, my talents, and my life. I will always remember you holding that mirror to my face the first time we met. Then I thought you were delightfully crazy, and now I’ve spent the rest of my life aspiring to 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 thank you for your precious gifts to me and to this planet.

 “So forget about race, religion, color or creed.  More huggin less muggin’s what everybody need!”
 — Richard Bartee, 1943-2003

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