A Beatle in Times Square
"I've got your magazines!" the newsstand proprietary exclaimed enthusiastically. "My distributor in Connecticut found a few extra copies of last week's New Musical Express, so I put one in your bundle, along with the latest edition. And I've got your Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Melody Maker tucked in here too." He handed John the large package of periodicals tied up with twine.
"Thanks, Mr. B," John said. He reached for his wallet and pulled out two twenty-dollar bills, then waited for Salvatore Bellini to process the transaction on his outmoded, cast-iron cash register.
"Here you go, Mr. Lennon," Sal said, handing John his change.
John took the dollars bills but left the coins on the counter. "Give those to Mario," John said as he slipped the bundle of newspapers under his arm. "He told me the last time I was here that he's saving up for a pet."
"Like we have room for a dog in our little apartment!" Sal laughed. "My son has no idea how much space an animal takes up! Or how much work it is to raise a pooch."
"Then get him a cat instead," John suggested. "They're much less work than dogs. And they keep the rats at bay. Always a plus in this city."
Sal raised his right eyebrow. "Surely you don't have rats in your nice apartment overlooking Central Park?"
"The Dakota is almost one hundred years old!" John laughed. "It's got all the same problems the other old buildings in New York City have. Rats, bugs, antiquated plumbing. And don't get me started on the lift! I can walk the seven flights of stairs to my flat in the time it takes the bleedin' Otis elevator to climb from the lobby to the top floor."
"Well, you'd best get a move-on then," Sal joked. "You have some serious hiking to do this morning."
"It's the only exercise I get these days," John replied. "Though whenever I do manage to escape from home, I love walking the thirty blocks between Times Square to the Dakota. There's always something new to discover in this wonderful city of ours."
"Spoken like a brand-new immigrant," Sal said. "I used to feel the same way about New York when I first moved here from Italy. But the thrill is gone. You know how my Mario described Manhattan to my mother in Milan the other day on the phone?"
John shook his head.
"He said, 'Nonna, in New York City, all you see is people. All you hear is noise. And all you do is walk.'"
John laughed again. "An observant lad, your son. I'll have to let you know what Sean says about the city once he learns how to talk."
"You do that," Sal replied. "Enjoy your thirty-block walk home."
John smiled at him. "I will. If I walk fast enough, I sometimes become almost invisible!" He switched out his regular specs for a pair of prescription sunglasses, then climbed the steps out of the subway stop and headed north towards his home on the Upper West Side.
John poked his head into the kitchen of his apartment. "How's the boy been?" he asked the nanny.
She rested her calligraphy brush on the kitchen table and looked up from her work. "Fine. A little fussy, but I gave him his bottle, and now he's down for his nap."
John stepped into the hallway and snuck a peek at his sleeping son in the nursery, then returned to the large, sun-filled kitchen. He took a seat at the far end of the table, away from the nanny. Then he cut the twine off his package and separated the periodicals into two stacks – newspapers and music magazines.
"I suppose I should catch up on the proper news first," he said under his breath. He picked up the Daily Mail, lay it flat on the table in front of him,and flipped to the sports news. He started reading an article about the most recent match between his hometown football clubs Liverpool and Everton. He turned the page to check the box score. A shiny black cricket looked up at him from the middle of an advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes. It rubbed its right hind leg against its wing and made a chirring sound.
"Bloody hell," John said to the bug. "I'm trying to read about the soccer, not the cricket."
The cricket lifted its other leg and rubbed its left wing, making a higher pitched noise.
"Kuriketto!" exclaimed the nanny. She grabbed her sheet of thick white paper and lifted it off the tabletop.
John looked up at her. "Kuriketto? Is that the Japanese word for cricket?"
She nodded and rushed out of the room.
John looked back at the bug. "Sorry, mate, I don't think she likes you."
The cricket moved his head back and forth, then lifted his right leg and strummed his wing once more, creating a melody of three descending notes. Then he lifted his left leg and repeated the motif.
John smiled. "Love, love, love," he sang back to the bug. "You stole my song!"
The cricket repeated his musical trick. John broke into a laugh, then started singing along with the insect.
Yoko stepped into the room. "What's this I hear about a kuriketto in the kitchen?"
John pointed to the newspaper. "It's not a kuriketto. It's a bloody Beatle! Or should I say, a 'kabutomushi'? Pull up a chair, love. This damned bug knows how to chirp the chorus to 'All You Need is Love'! Give him a listen!"
Yoko walked over to John's side and examined the insect. The cricket fell silent.
"Come on, Chester, do your trick for Yoko," John urged the bug.
The cricket turned around and stared at the oven.
"Chester?" Yoko asked.
"Yeah, Chester," John replied. "He was sitting on top of an advert for Chesterfield ciggies when I opened up this page of the paper."
"You named him?" Yoko continued.
John shrugged. "Why not? He's a living creature. He deserves a name, just like our cats do."
Yoko frowned at her husband. "Don't even think about keeping him for a pet. We have enough bugs in this flat as it is, without your bringing home a new one with your English tabloids."
"But none of them sing like Chester does," John countered.
Yoko ignored his remark and glanced at the newspaper. "The Daily Mail? Honestly, John, why do you still read that crap? If you want to look at a tabloid, you can pick up a copy of The Post at any newsstand in the city. You don't need to go to some specialty bookstore and buy these imported British rags."
"I didn't buy this at a specialty bookstore," John protested. "I bought it from a man who runs a newsstand in the Times Square subway station. He asks his distributor in Connecticut to set aside some English papers for me, and I pop by his shop every week or so to pick them up."
"So this kuriketto came to my kitchen all the way from Connecticut?" Yoko surmised.
John offered her a seductive smile. "I traveled halfway across the world to be with you, love. Why shouldn't Chester cross a state line just to bask in your radiance?"
The cricket turned around again, walked to the edge of the newspaper and started chewing on the bottom corner of a page.
"Get rid of it," Yoko directed John. "It's dirty. It will get germs on the baby."
"He will not," John insisted. "Look how bright and shiny he is! No, wait, love. Don't go. Give him a listen first. This bloody bug knows how to sing 'All You Need is Love.' Honestly – I've heard him!"
John started singing the chorus from his song once more. The cricket continued to eat the newspaper.
Yoko sighed. "I have to make some phone calls," she announced as she started walking away from John. "That kuriketto had better be gone the next time I see you. If you don't kill it, I will." She left the kitchen and closed the door behind her.
The cricket swallowed its mouthful of newspaper, then looked back up at John. It lifted its right leg, strummed its wing, and started playing its three note song once more.
John put his elbows on the table and rested his chin against his fists. "Daft bug," he chastised the cricket. "Why couldn't you have done that when my missus was here?"
He sat and listened to the cricket's chirping for several seconds, then stood up from the table and left the room. He returned moments later, holding a small, rectangular cardboard box with the word 'Hohner' printed across the top.
"This is where I keep my mouth harp," John told the cricket. "Or should I say, my harmonica, since you're an American bug? Oh, hell, I suppose it doesn't matter. You can sing, but you can't speak."
He tore off a corner of the sports page and stuffed it inside the box, then picked up the cricket and rested him gently on top of the paper. "I'll keep you in here until I can find you a better home. But it's best we don't let Mother know that you're staying."
He carried the box to the nursery and placed it on a shelf in the far corner of the room.
"I'll be back for you in a bit, Chester," he whispered. "But for now, why don't you just nap along with Sean?"
John started walking away. He snuck another adoring glance at his sleeping baby, then reached for the knob on the nursery's door.
A soft chorus of four descending chirps rang out from the box on the shelf. John lingered by the door and listened to the song. The cricket repeated the same four notes again and again.
Memories rushed to John's head of the song he had written for his older son Julian years before, when he'd been going through his divorce. He'd been too embarrassed to record the lullaby himself, so he'd given the song to Ringo to perform on The White Album. He returned to Sean's crib and sang, "Good-night-sleep-tight."
Sean stretched out his tiny arms, clenched his hands in and out of fists, then rolled over. He released a soft mewling sound, then settled back to sleep.
"Close your eyes, and I'll close mine," John sang in a whisper.
The cricket chirped his four-note chorus in response.
"Now the moon begins to shine," John continued singing. "Good-night-sleep-tight."
The cricket chirped the last four notes in harmony with John.
John tiptoed back to the corner of the room and rested his right hand on the harmonica box.
"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," he whispered to Chester.
"Nǐ hǎo!" John called into the small five-and-dime just north of Columbus Park. He closed the shop door behind him and approached the counter.
A short, fat man wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Wǒ ài Niǔyuē!" stepped up to the cash register from the stock room in the back of the store. He assessed John's appearance briefly, then greeted him in English. "Hello to you too, sir. How may I help you?"
"I was looking for…" John let his voice trail off while he struggled to articulate his request. "A while ago, I was dating this Chinese girl," he finally continued. "She told me her family used to keep a pet cricket on their hearth for good luck. They had a little cage for it that looked like a tiny doll's house."
The man behind the counter nodded. "Was it made of ceramic, metal or wood?"
"I haven't a clue," John replied.
"Typically, people keep their pet crickets in ceramic jars in the winter and in hollowed out gourds in the summer," the shopkeeper said. "I sell wooden cages too. But those are mostly for catching and transporting the Xīshuài. If you leave the cricket inside a cage for too long, it might start chewing through the wooden bars."
"Could I see what you have, Mister…?" John asked.
"My name is Sai Fong," the man said. He stepped back into his stock room and returned moments later with a tray bearing an elaborately painted ceramic jar, a sturdy-looking, tube-shaped metal cage, and an eight-inch-tall pagoda fashioned out of wood.
John's eyes immediately fell on the pagoda. "This reminds me of the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong," he said.
"It's built to look like the temple," Sai Fong agreed. "You've been to Hong Kong?"
"Years ago," John said. "I saw the temple through the windscreen of a car when I was driving through the city." He cleared his throat and pulled his harmonica box out of the pocket of his jacket. "So I found this cricket yesterday. He sings."
Sai Fong nodded. "That's what crickets do."
"No, really, my cricket sings songs," John said. "Actual melodies." He took the lid off the box and showed off his new pet to the shopkeeper. "C'mon, Chester, give him your best."
Chester chewed contentedly on a shred of newspaper inside his box.
John's face fell.
Sai Fong chuckled. "Perhaps I can entice him to sing with some mulberry leaves. That's what the Emperor of China used to feed his pet crickets." He stepped back into his stock room once more.
John heard a creaky door open, then moments later, shut with a soft slam. Sai Fong returned to the counter with a handful of bright green leaves.
"You're in luck," the shopkeeper said. "The mulberry tree in my back yard just came into leaf. Spring leaves always taste the best." He placed a small leaf inside the pagoda-shaped cage, then nodded to John.
John plucked Chester out of his harmonica box and placed him inside the cage. Chester immediately tore into the mulberry leaf.
"He likes it!" Sai Fong laughed. "Hey Mikey!"
John and Sai Fong watched Chester chew for a long moment. Then John removed the leaf from the pagoda. "Okay, Chester, you've had your pudding. Now let's sing for your supper."
Chester moved his head back and forth, casting nervous glances at both men, then crawled to the back of the wooden cage. He lifted his right leg, bowed it across his wing, and strummed a two-note chorus that sounded like a siren.
Sai Fong shrugged. "Well, okay, I guess that counts as a song."
"It sure as hell does!" John protested. "He's singing the verse to 'I am the Walrus'!" John crouched down so that he was at eye level with Chester, then started singing, "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together."
John's voice dropped on the final syllable of 'together'; so did the tone of Chester's chirping. John sang the second line. Chester kept pace with him. Then John started hitting higher notes as he belted out, "I am the eggman, you are the eggman, I am the walrus!" Chester raised the pitch of his chirps to match him. John loudly exclaimed, "Goo-goo-ga-joob!" Then Chester sawed out a melody on his wings that sounded just like the cello solo that transitioned the song's chorus to its middle eight.
John stood back and crossed his arms in front of his chest proudly. "See? He sings!"
Sai Fong smiled. "He sure as hell does. That cricket should be the fifth Beatle."
"I wonder if he knows any Buddy Holly tunes," John said. He crouched back down and started singing 'Peggy Sue' into the cage. Chester turned away from him, lifted his head, and looked longingly at the mulberry leaf on the counter.
"He hasn't learned that one yet," John surmised. "I'll have to teach it to him when we get home."
"He doesn't know that he's a Cricket," Sai Fong noted. "He thinks he's a Beatle, like you."
John winced. "Ah, so you recognize me."
"It's hard not to," Sai Fong replied. "Sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"You didn't," John said. "I just wish I could fade into the woodwork some days."
"Didn't Buddy Holly sing a song called 'Not Fade Away'?" Sai Fong asked.
"He did," John agreed. Then a flash of recognition washed over his face. "Maybe Chester knows this one." He crouched back down and started singing 'Words of Love' into the cage. Chester immediately turned back towards him and started sawing his wings in harmony to John's melody.
"I'll be damned," John said. "He just knows Beatle tunes." He stood up straight and looked back at the shopkeeper. "My group covered that song on our 'Beatles for Sale' LP."
"A remarkable cricket," Sai Fong observed. "He deserves a remarkable home like this beautiful pagoda. I'll sell it to you for ten dollars."
John looked back down at the counter and noticed a paper price tag tied to one of the rungs of the cage. He lifted it up and saw the price '$7.50' clearly written in the middle of the paper tag.
Sai Fong cleared his throat awkwardly. "And for that ten dollars, I'm also throwing in a large handful of mulberry leaves," he declared. "And a promise to give you more leaves each time you stop by my store in the future. Otherwise, you'd have to travel to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to collect your little cricket's favorite treat. There aren't any Mulberry trees growing in Central Park. Or so I've heard."
"Right," John said. He pulled out his wallet and paid the shopkeeper, then slipped the partially chewed mulberry leaf back into Chester's cage and closed the door of the pagoda. He collected his harmonica box and the handful of leaves off the counter. Then he tipped his hat to Sai Fong and left the shop, whistling the melody to 'If I Fell.' Chester lifted his left leg and started chirping in harmony to the song as John stood on the sidewalk and waited for a taxi.
"C'mon, Chester, you can hit this note, I know you can," John prodded his cricket. He pushed his chair back from the kitchen table, strummed his guitar in a fast tremolo and sang, "Happiness, is a warm, yes it ih-ih-izz…" Then he lifted his voice into a falsetto and belted out the word, "Gun!"
Chester rubbed his legs together and played a long, extended note one octave lower than John's pitch.
John lowered his head and examined the little insect perched inside the cage. "Maybe I'm asking too much of you," he declared. "Maybe crickets aren't capable of hitting that note. Let's try doing it one key down."
The nanny glanced over her shoulder and smiled at John. "It's nice hearing you sing again. I haven't heard you playing your guitar in the longest time."
"It's nice having someone to sing with again," John replied. "This little kuriketto inspires me. I like teaching him new songs. It's almost like being back in a band again."
Sean looked up at his father and warbled a tuneless melody.
"Your little boy likes hearing you play music again too," the nanny noted.
John glanced at his young son, propped in his high chair at the other end of the table. Sean clapped his hands enthusiastically, splattering globs of rice cereal onto his nanny's clean blouse.
"Sorry about that," John laughed. "Beatle fans do tend to wreak havoc whenever they get excited."
The nanny wiped Sean's dirty hands with a damp washcloth, then offered him a spoonful of mushy bananas. He grabbed the spoon away from her and attempted to feed himself, dropping globs of yellow mush all over the tray of his high chair.
John chuckled, then turned back towards Chester. "I'll transpose this next one down a key so the high note won't be so hard to hit." He started strumming his guitar, then sang, "You're gonna lose that girl, you're gonna LOO-OOH-OOSE that girl!"
Chester didn't try to hit the high note on the second 'lose.' Instead, he chirped the notes of George and Paul's background chorus of 'yes, yes you're gonna lose that girl!'
John rested his arm on top of his guitar and smiled at the bug. "Fine, you cheeky thing. You outsmarted me there. So now let's try 'Tell Me Why'. It's got a whole line of falsetto."
He started to strum, then noticed Yoko walking into the kitchen. He stopped playing. Yoko leaned over Sean and kissed the top of his head, then took a seat next to John at the other end of the table.
"I thought I told you to get rid of that thing," she remarked.
"But he brings luck," John insisted. "The man in Chinatown who sold me Chester's cage gave me a little booklet about raising crickets the last time I stopped by his store for mulberry leaves. Did you know, love, that according to Chinese legend, the very first cricket was the reincarnation of a wise prophet named Hsi Shuai? This prophet only spoke the truth, so his words always found favor with the gods. But some thugs on the earth didn't like hearing Hsi Shuai's pronouncements and conspired to kill the poor sod. So the gods transformed Hsi Shuai into a cricket. And now he sings a song that everybody loves but nobody understands. Except for the spirits in heaven. They understand the words of the crickets."
"Hhmm," Yoko said. She took a long drag on the Gitane she was holding in her right hand, then rested her cigarette on a cut-glass ashtray sitting a few inches away from the pagoda. "It doesn't sound like this prophet was very lucky to me. Having to take the form of an insect to avoid assassination."
"It all depends on how you look at it," John replied. He picked up Yoko's cigarette, sucked in a long drag, then placed it back on the edge of the ashtray. "Listen up, love. I've taught Chester to sing your bit on 'Angela'." John strummed a few chords on his guitar, then started singing the opening lines of the song he and Yoko had written in support of the black activist Angela Davis. Chester chirped along in harmony with John.
"Fine. You plan to replace me with a bug now," Yoko said. "So much for our musical partnership."
John looked at her askance. "Oh, come on, Mother, I didn't mean anything like that! I'm just trying to get Chester up-to-date with my post-Beatles songbook!" He opened the door of the cage and held out his hand. Chester jumped out of the pagoda and landed on John's palm. John lifted Chester up towards Yoko and smiled. "Just look at this lovely, clean and shiny, highly musical kuriketto. How can you not love this boy?"
At the sound of John's voice, Chester started chirping the melody of the Beatles' tune "This Boy."
A loud squawky giggle rang out from the other end of the table. John and Yoko turned their gazes towards their son Sean. He had wrested the bowl of mushy bananas away from his nanny and dumped it on top of his head. John laughed at the spectacle. Yoko started reprimanding the nanny in Japanese.
Chester jumped off John's hand. As he landed on the table, he knocked the smoldering cigarette off the edge of the ashtray. It rolled towards a blank sheet of calligraphy paper that the nanny had pushed aside when she started feeding the baby. The tip of the Gitane made contact with the rough edge of the paper. By the time anyone noticed the cigarette sitting in the middle of the table, the corner of the paper had already started turning black.
"Bugger!" John shouted. He quickly put down his guitar, then grabbed the paper and ran with it to the sink. He turned on the faucet and immediately extinguished the small fire.
"Your pet has ruined a piece of art!" Yoko exclaimed.
"No he didn't," John protested. "The page was blank, and only the edge got ruined. I can cut off the wet, burnt part. And anyway, it was an accident. Chester didn't mean to set a fire. He's just a cricket."
Yoko frowned at him. "That cricket of yours has brought bad luck to this household. It's time you got rid of it."
John looked back at her beseechingly.
Chester retreated to his pagoda and cowered in the back for several seconds. Then he lifted his right leg and started playing the melody to 'Aisumasan,' the third track on John's solo album 'Mind Games.'
John cast a winsome smile at Chester, then started singing along to the cricket's accompaniment:
"And when I hurt you and cause you pain,
Darling I promise, I won't do it again.
Aisumasen, aisumasen, Yoko san."
Yoko tapped her fingers against the tabletop. "So you taught your cricket to apologize for you."
John grinned back at her and shrugged.
Yoko picked up her cigarette and looked into John's eyes. "Don't give him cause to apologize again," she said. She offered John a wan smile of forgiveness, then stood up from her chair and left the kitchen.
John rested Chester's pagoda on the middle of a small table in Café La Fortuna, the Upper West Side coffee shop he often frequented. Then he took his guitar out of its case, slung its strap over his shoulder, and assumed his familiar wide-legged stance. "Do you mind if I busk for a bit, Vinnie?" John asked the coffee shop's proprietor.
"Busk all you want," replied Vincent Urwand. "Business is slow this morning. Maybe you can entice a few passersby to come in and buy some java."
"And then we get to keep half the money you collect in your guitar case!" joked Vincent's wife Alice.
John smiled at them. "Sorry, but I've already promised to split my proceeds with my new partner, Chester." He cocked his head at the wooden cage. "Get a load of this cricket. He knows the Beatles' repertoire better than I do!"
John strummed a few chords, then started singing, 'I Should Have Known Better.' Chester lifted his two hind legs in a rollicking rhythm, and played the melody alongside John. When John finished the song, he bowed his head to the husband-and-wife shop owners, then started playing the opening chords to 'Norwegian Wood.' Chester played George Harrison's haunting sitar solo with his legs and wings, deftly producing an exotic-sounding tremolo that closely mimicked the Indian instrument's tone.
Vincent raced to the front of his shop and opened the door to allow John's voice to carry out into the street. Within a minute, a small crowd of curious listeners had gathered inside the shop. They broke into loud cheer when John and Chester brought their duet to a close.
"Thank you very much," acknowledged John. "And now for our next number, we're going to sing a song from my very first movie. It's called 'A Hard Day's Night'!"
Chester raised both of his wings at sharp angles, then rested his weight on his thorax and lifted both of his hind legs. He brushed them rapidly against his wings, creating an almost pitch-perfect copy of the song's iconic G7sus4/A opening chord. John started singing, and soon had his audience belting out the lyrics along with him. When the song ended, the crowd broke into even wilder cheers.
John and Chester slowed things down with a lilting rendition of 'Julia,' then picked the pace back up with a rousing chorus of 'Give Peace a Chance.'
More Beatles fans started cramming into the small coffee shop. The crowd started pushing against John and Chester. John cast an excited glance at his cricket. "Isn't this great?"
Chester stepped backwards into the far corner of his cage.
John looked back up at the crowd. "Okay, I've just about taught this little ditty to my new partner here. It's one of the first songs I ever recorded, back in my hometown of Liddypool, and it goes like this…"
He opened his mouth wide and belted out the word, "Well," stretching out the note until he could hardly hold it anymore. Then he started strumming his guitar and singing, 'That'll be the Day.'
The crowd clapped in rhythm to the beat, then erupted into thunderous applause at the end of the tune.
John looked down at Chester and leaned closer to the cage. "Did you sing along with me? It's gotten so loud in here that I couldn't hear you." He examined the cricket's face and sighed. "To tell you the truth, mate, I could never hear my bandmates sing the last few years we were giving concerts either."
John straightened his back and put his fingers to his lips to hush the crowd. When he managed to calm them down, he said, "Let's try to be quiet for a moment, so you can hear my friend's solo on this song."
He started strumming a waltz rhythm, then sang the first verse of 'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.' The crowd chanted along enthusiastically each time he called out the word, 'Hey!' drowning out John's voice. When John finished the second chorus, he leaned closer towards Chester, hoping to hear the cricket perform the flute solo.
Chester remained silent.
John drew in a deep breath, then released it with a long sigh.
"Alright, folks, that was my last song," he announced abruptly. "Now everyone go to the counter and buy some coffee from Mr. and Mrs. Urwand, who were kind enough to sponsor my brief 'coming-out-of-retirement-and-then-sliding-right-back-into-obscurity' concert."
The fans continued reaching out their hands towards John. He backed away from them and managed to slip his guitar in its case. He grabbed Chester's cage, then inched his way to the shop's rear exit, which he had used for an escape on two previous occasions when tabloid photographers had cornered him.
"Thanks again, Vinnie!" he called over the noisy crowd. Then he opened the shop's back door. He slunk through a short hallway that led to a small alley filled with trash cans, and ran back to the Dakota.
"Have you got my papers, Mr. B?" John asked as he approached the counter of Salvatore Bellini's newsstand.
"I do indeed," Salvatore replied. He reached behind the counter and pulled out a bundle of newspapers and music journals tied up with twine. "There's a special edition of Melody Maker in here too. All about your group. Nice color picture of you on the cover."
"Great," John said unenthusiastically. He rested Chester's pagoda on the counter and pulled out his wallet to pay for the periodicals. "Is Mario here?"
"He's at the vending machine by the turnstiles, buying some chips," Salvatore replied. "Mario! Come here! This gentleman wants to talk to you!"
A small boy with dark curly hair crossed the subway station's concrete floor and approached John. He shoved a bright orange Cheeto into his mouth, then said, "Hey, Mr. L."
"Don't speak with your mouth full!" his father chided him. "It's rude."
"Oh never you mind that," John said. "I've been much ruder than he'll ever be."
John picked up Chester's cage and handed it to the boy. "I've got a prezzie for you. A special pet."
Mario looked at the black bug inside the wooden cage and made a face. "This isn't a pet. It's a bug."
"No, really, this bug is a great pet. He sings songs," John insisted. "Or rather, he used to sing songs. We sang together in my kitchen all this past spring. But then I tried sharing a stage with him at my favorite coffee shop, and the crowd scared him. But I suspect that if you tried singing with him in a more peaceful, private place, he might just start sharing his gift with the world again."
Mario lifted his head and frowned at John.
"Mario, say thank you!" his father called out from the counter.
"Thanks," Mario said indifferently. He examined the cricket in the cage more closely.
"Tell me, Mario, what's your favorite song these days?" John asked.
Mario looked back up at John. "There's a new one I heard on the radio that I really like. It's called 'Play that Funky Music'."
John took Chester's cage away from Mario and held it in front of his own face. "Chester," he instructed the cricket. "I'm going to sing a new song for you, and I want you to sing along. And I promise, nobody is going to bother you this time."
John started swaying his shoulders from side to side to build up some rhythm. Then he sang directly into the cage:
Yeah, I was a funky singer
Playin' in a rock and roll band.
I never had no problems
Burnin' down the one night stands.
Then everything around me,
Got to startin' feelin' so low.
So I decided quickly, yes I did -
To disco down and check out the show.
Yeah, they was dancin' and singin'
And movin' to the groovin',
And just when it hit me
Somebody turned around and shouted:
'Play that funky music white boy!
Play that funky music right!
Play that funky music white boy!
Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die!'
As John repeated the line, 'Play that funky music, white boy,' Chester lifted one of his hind legs and started chirping along to the tune.
Mario joined in with John on the next verse, singing, "I tried to understand this, I thought that they were out of their minds!"
Chester started hopping excitedly in his cage, chirping out a disco bass beat underneath their voices.
"Cavalo!" cursed Salvatore. "Is this what passes for popular music today? Songs were better when I was a boy!"
John rested Chester's cage back on the counter and smiled. "Pop songs are always changing, Sal, but music remains a constant. If a song makes you feel like singing or playing along, then it's a good song. I was so fed up with the music industry that I almost walked away from music altogether. But then this little cricket opened up my eyes and ears to possibilities once more."
He pulled a handful of leaves and a piece of paper out of his trouser pocket, then crouched down and handed them to Mario. "Chester likes to eat mulberry leaves," he explained. "This stash should last you for a few weeks. When you run out, go to Chinatown and look up the man who lives at this address. He's got a mulberry tree in his back yard and he'll give you some fresh leaves."
Then John tucked the tied bundle of newspapers under his arm and nodded at Salvatore and Mario. "Take good care of my cricket," he sang to them. "Be just as kind as you can be."
Chester lifted his right leg and played along as John continued singing:
"And if you should discover,
That you don't really love her,
Then send my baby back home…to…me!"
He bowed to the shopkeeper and his son, then switched out his glasses for sunglasses and climbed the stairs out of the subway station.
Inspired by the Newberry Award-winning children's novel "The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden (1960).