THE YOUNG man in the oversize T-shirt and the young woman with the battered bucket didn't attract much attention on the SEPTA train. She sat with her head down, drumsticks resting on the white plastic. He walked from silver pole to silver pole in anticipation.
Then the train started rattling north under Broad Street. And the subway car filled with drums and song.
"My name is Jadon and this is Stefi/And I always kick the fly rhymes over the fresh beats . . . "
Stefi Varghese beat her makeshift drum and Jadon Woodard kept pace, moving up and down the aisle and among the passengers, incorporating their clothing and current events in his ever-evolving rhymes.
For Varghese, a 20-year-old Temple student, this is simply a way to make extra money. For Woodard, 19, it's a lifeline.
"Poetry is like air to him. If you took it away, he'd suffocate," said Greg Corbin, founder and director of Philly Youth Poetry Movement.
For a year, these train performances were Woodard's only source of income, the money he used to pay for a room in a group home - when he even had a room to go to.
"Every day, I was rhyming on the train. I'd spit rhymes," he said. "It was a safe haven. I had to work for it every week."
But now his poetry gifts are being noticed: He rhymes in a Sprite commercial. He appeared on Nickelodeon during Black History Month. He moved to the city to be part of the nationally acclaimed Philly Poets team shooting for another chance to go to the nationals.
"People see I'm a black youth and I'm not out wilding," he said. "I'm out rhyming."
He could easily have gone the other way.
As a younger teen in California, Woodard ran with drug dealers, didn't much care about his future. He moved from high school to high school.
He was in a bookstore, stealing Playboy and other magazines to resell to the kids on his block, when he heard an open mike night in progress. He put the magazines back, scribbled a few rhymes and took the stage.
He was hooked.
He moved to Florida to live with his mother. It didn't go well, but he kept rhyming and performing. He doesn't go into many details, but he was removed from his mother's home and put into foster care.
"All I had was my poetry," he said. "No jokes aside, it's all I had."
He also had an inner drive, and the support of mentors in the poetry movement. Despite going to six different high schools, he graduated as valedictorian from an alternative high school in Florida.
"I spit poetry at graduation," he said proudly.
Woodard met Corbin, of Philly Youth Poetry Movement, at the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam in 2007. That year, Philly won it all, a victory featured on an HBO documentary.
Corbin was taken by the young poet with the hard-knock background.
"He was basically living out of a bag," Corbin said. "He was respectful and humble and very interested in learning."
Woodard moved to New Jersey to live with a relative and kept coming to Philadelphia to compete. In 2009, he made the Philly team. He now lives with other squatters in West Philadelphia in a home where they pay utilities but no rent.
"He relates so well to young people. All he has to do is tell his story," Corbin said. "Turning pain into entertainment is one thing, but someone making their pain beautiful, there's infinity all over that. Something divine."
Corbin's mission is to expose more young people to poetry, to give them an alternative.
"No one's paying attention to young people. That flash mob, they get all the exposure in the world. But kids like Jadon, they need their passion to be engaged," Corbin said. "A lot of them are involved in creative arts, but no one's tapping into their gifts."
The money Woodard makes on the trains these days is going toward sending his team to the next Brave New Voices event, slated for Los Angeles in July. He and other Philly spoken-word artists have a fund-raising show slated for Saturday at the Rotunda in West Philly.
"I want to inspire people," Woodard said. "I don't want to be like anybody. I want to be me."
Last year, Woodard and Varghese started playing on the trains at 7 a.m. every weekday morning, going strong until about 10 a.m. On a really good day, they could each make about $70.
"My favorite part is when they really like you and they ask you to do it again," Woodard said. "I'll be rocking out on the train for 10 minutes."
Not everyone appreciates the impromptu concerts. Sometimes passenger plug their ears or stare out the windows. Once, a woman tried to jab Woodard with a pen.
But on this recent sunny afternoon, passengers seemed glad to have the show. A few slapped hands with Woodard. One girl took pictures of him with her camera phone. A standing trio made a show out of dramatically dancing to the beats. More than one slipped Woodard money even when he wasn't openly collecting.
"It's fun," said passenger LaToya Jones, 21. "He's doing something positive."
Woodard, moving on to another car, was happily in a zone.
"This is Stefi and my name is Jadon/And when we get the party, it goes on and on . . . "
Philly Youth Poetry Night and Open Mike, 6 p.m. Saturday, Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St., $7 youth, $10 adults. Get a discount with a donation of clothing or food for the needy. 215-573-3234, www.therotunda.org.