Every day, Louise asks me the same question: “Did you give money away today?” “No,” I say, somewhat sheepishly. She is shocked. “You couldn’t find anyone who needed a hundred dollars?”
That’s not the problem. The need is everywhere. It’s overwhelming, in fact. But I feel timid. Cowed. Disheartened.
“Maybe I’m done,” I’ve wondered to myself. Maybe I’m all gived out.
Wherever I go, I feel the presence of the people I’ve connected with. I was downtown today and had my eyes out for Lincoln. I walked by the spot where I listened to Timothy play his fiddle, and where I stood waiting for the eleventh person to pass by.
There was a sprinkling of suited men, and women in heels balancing plastic cups of iced coffee and swinging shopping bags. Everyone else seemed down and out: ragged, tired, empty.
So many signs asking for help.
I crossed Director Park (where I met Berta) and started to hear music – lovely acoustic guitar music. When had we started piping music in to the MAX stops? So Portland! I thought.
Then I caught sight of a small man sitting on a folding chair as a line of a song drifted over: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
It was the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. I wandered closer, drawn in by the man’s guitar playing, his sonorous voice and the classic old song.
When he was done playing, the man stood up and stretched. “Hey, that was real nice,” I said. “Not too loud?” he asked. “I saw a couple of women walk away cause they were trying to make a phone call. Does it seem too loud?”
I said I didn’t think so and that I really liked his playing. He told me his name was Bob. “Bob the Busker. That’s what they call me!” It wasn’t hard to get him to open up. He said he’d always loved music as a hobby but now it was his livelihood. “I injured my back in ’89 and haven’t been able to do any of my trades since then.”
He listed a dozen things he used to do, among them construction, logging, and parks maintenance. “It caught up with me. I ruptured three discs picking up a piece of newspaper.”
Bob said he has a lot of friends who play on the street, and that he’s done some gigs with Timothy. He told me about the back pain and how he tries to cope with it. He’s got a real nice 12 string guitar that’s too heavy for him to carry on days like today, when his sciatica is acting up.
I had a hundred in my pocket (it’s been there for weeks) and I rubbed my fingers over it while we talked. His open case held a few singles and a five.
“So, hey,” I said finally. “I have something I want to give you. I hope it helps you out a little.” I put the hundred in his hand.
“Oh, wow,” he said quietly. “I never had anything bigger than a twenty.” He pulled out his wallet and tucked the bill inside as he told me a rather long story about a Norwegian woman who had given him twenty dollars once because she recognized him as a fellow Norwegian. “My eyes, I guess,” he shrugged.
“Play me a song,” I urged. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you! I’ll never forget you. You know John Prine?” Then he sat down and sang this song.
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare
As if you didn’t care. Say, “Hello in there.
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