May 17, 2010
I’m in the town square of Prescott, Arizona. Choosing a bench I pulled out my computer and began to write. In front of me is an old gazebo. Just beyond that there is a life size bronze statue of a cowboy on a horse perched atop a large chunk of granite. The Yavapai County Courthouse is over to the right. And strolling toward me is a panhandler. I seem to be a magnet for such characters so I’m not surprised when his stroll becomes a beeline.
He is dressed in layers ready for anything the elements can throw at him; a yellowed undershirt, a blue plaid flannel, then a down vest, and a gray carhart style barn coat draped over it all. Quite a contrast to the shorts, t-shirt and flip flops I’m wearing.
His eyes were steely blue. His skin was leathery both in color and texture. His hair and beard gray years before they should be. The man also wore a patriotic ball cap. It was the trucker type with a solid black front and netted back. Two images busied the front. The head of a bald eagle emerged from an outline of the United States covered in stars and stripes like the flag.
“Can I play you a song?” was his lead in. “Sure,” I said. He pulled an Ibanez 6-string out of his bag and began to tune. He made a few comments about this being his only means of supporting himself. Having had my share of exchanges like this I knew that was the set up for a more direct pitch that would come later. But instead of leaving at that I began to ask him his story.
- What’s your name? Jeff
- What led you to playing music in a park for handouts? He told me he worked for years in construction and landscaping, but was paid under the table. There were no benefits. One day Jeff was having excruciating stomach pains. He was rushed to the hospital which revealed he had colon cancer. They did surgery saving his life but giving him a debt that could never pay back. He lost his job because of his inability to handle the physical labor of it. He lost his apartment because he didn’t have a job. Shortly thereafter he was forced to hit the streets in desperation.
- Did you grow up in Arizona? No. Jeff grew up on the frozen ponds of Duluth, MN. He loved hockey and showed promise as a boy. Just before junior high school his dad landed a job with a fuel company in Kansas City. The moved proved to be catastrophic for Jeff. Embraced only by the kids on the fringe, he points to that as the beginning of a continuing battle with drugs and alcohol.
- How did you get there to here? His older brother had come years ago. My new friend said he would come and visit him each spring. Then one day his brother hired him. The story got fuzzy at that point ending with the sad admission that he was fired and now they only see each other once a year…if that.
- Where’s your family? His wife and daughter are in Florida. He hasn’t seen them in years and has given up hope of ever seeing his daughter again. He also told me they had a son that died when he was six which further complicated their difficult marriage and fueled his addictions. His narrative gave way to tears as he began the song he promised…a song inspired by his son…a song of lament.
Musically he was quite good. When Jeff was finished we chatted for only a few more minutes. He was becoming antsy. It was getting close to the time when a church near the square would be serving dinner. What do you do with all that? I gave him the four dollar bills in my wallet thanking him for his song and story.
This morning, yips of guilt were nipping at my heals. I didn’t give Jeff the plan of salvation. I didn’t say I’d pray for him, not wanting to make a promise I might not keep. I didn’t even take him to a nearby restaurant to feed him. I didn’t do a lot of things that maybe I could have or should have. I only listened. I tried to treat him like a human rather than an interruption. I stopped what I was doing. I looked him in the eye. I did my best to give him some dignity.