I hear his music before I see him. Deep bass notes push vibrating thuds through cheap speakers to land, rubbery and hollow but welcomed, on my ears. Familiar lyrics make me smile and my hum turns to singing, while he slides by me. Turning, dancing, laughing. Blue jeans, faded gray tanktop, bulging arms, a baseball cap sits jauntily across brown-gray curls and skin tinted a lighter-almond shade, jawline outlined with scruff. He waves a 3 foot, black ghetto blaster covered in spray paint, through the sea of suited, focused, calloused 9-5’rs. He greets their reserve with a smile, a friendly shout or impromptu dance. Before I know it, I’m walking behind him, flashing a smile that feels like hot sunshine, drinking in the warmth of a playful soundtrack that compliments the beautiful afternoon. Down the block he ambles, and, every once in awhile, he teases a hesitant, partial smile from the pursed lips of someone late for something or worried about some outcome, somewhere.
It’s a beautiful dance. Only possible because there are two players. One leads. The other with no choice but to follow. His brave open heart, their disdain. His glowing warmth, their coldness. He sees who they are and instead of suffocating under the weight of their disapproval, growing bitter about their backward, curious glances, it seems to fuel some desire within him to do, to be more. He summons more beauty and honest strength and dances on. And it balances out somehow, like the sun amongst the clouds, oasis in a dessert, a distant mountain peak rising up, tall, amongst an endless, analogous range. As I walk on, through a sunny Monday afternoon, dreaming about where I’ll travel to next, with my new yellow laptop bag to match my new, crazy life, he makes me happy. Bass-thumping reassurance that you don’t have to march ahead with everyone else — accumulating, scheming, winning — when there’s so much more to discover veering, sometimes careening, sometimes out-of-control but always breathlessly excited, towards something different, sometimes with loved companions, sometimes alone — giving, sharing, sometimes stumbling, but always growing.
I stop and fish for my camera then. Keeping it within reach has become a strange habit to me. When he walks by, I smile and ask for a photo.
Of course! He kneels down and poses, biceps flaring, rap blaring. We walk for a block or two. Talking, after he clicks a button and the sountrack squeals to a stop. He points to the stereo. 1982. An original, he swears. I walk up and down the street. From here to Broadway, every day. I make people smile and I like that. I made you smile.
You made my day! I tell him enthusiastically. You do this every day?
Every day. I get tired, it takes some work hauling this baby around town. Here, you hold it! I lower my camera as he shoves it in my arms as we walk. It’s like carrying a small child, 30 pounds maybe? But much more awkward cradling a black plastic square.
It’s the batteries. Old school baby sucks up big alkaline batteries like it ain’t a thing. But it’s worth it. When I see those smiles. It’s worth it. People need to smile.
I remember my old hand-held portable stereo, one tape cassette. I’d bring it on family vacations, tuck it under my pillow and quietly press “record” as my siblings talked only to play it back giddy with the surprise! Later, when I was alone, I’d sing along to my favorite songs, sometimes sing harmony, sometimes melody, but always singing. It made me smile. It still does. I can’t sing a note and not feel my heart start to unfold into a smile.
Hold on a sec. Let me give you some battery money – you made my day and I appreciate it. I hope you keep doing this.
I fish into my purse for $5 and hand it to him with a smile. I never ask for money he tells me, I think it’s bad karma or something. I just do it because I want to… He looks at me, but I appreciate this. I really do. He takes it with a promise that it will go to batteries, no liquor or booze or anything. I ain’t like that. He tells me his name is Grizzly just as I see it painted on his deck.
I look at him, brown eyes and smile. Thanks for doing this.
Ma’am, I’m Native American, descended from the Cherokee Indians in the Appelachian Mountains of Virginia. We were a proud and happy people.
I smile, imagining what it would be like if we could both walk the Trail of Tears backwards, we might find ourselves neighbors or brothers as my great-great someone was Cherokee too.
He leans in, playfully, Now if you want a Native American to follow you…
Back to present, I have a nervous image of him mistaking my interest and finishing the sentence with an inappropriate proposition. But he finishes in nothing less than how he started…just turn on some music, they will go wherever you lead.
I smile, and wish him a fantastic day. He smiles and asks if I want another photo opportunity. He’ll be performing. Capital Hill tennis courts, by the resevoir. 50 kids and 50 balls. The biggest dodge ball game on the books. I’m the DJ. Friday nights, 7pm.
I tell him I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I hop on the 7. The crazy bus headed down it’s crazy route, home. It’s crowded, chaotic, and noisy. People get on and off, head to and from the life we all share, though we only ever see the intersection for the 5 or 15 minutes we share, sitting, facing forward on this bus.
I turn and smile at the woman sitting next to me. Ebony skin, rich mahogany lipstick, corporate jacket and matching heels. On my left, his damp skin turns his shaggy hair to thick ringlets as he plays with his iPod, head down. The woman with a flat wrinkled face and eyes curving slightly down, stringy gray hair pinned back with an electric blue paper flower. She holds on to a little girl, whose lush jet black pigtails sit on top of her head like soft kitten ears, as she plays with the bag around her shoulder that reads “very amazing living”. She looks up at the boy in the bright red shirt, tan vest and sagging pants as he limps to the front of the bus, only to race down down the sidewalk once outside. We both watch him run. But as I sit, he stands up to offer his seat to the woman whose hair hides behind a black headscarf and while her stomach bulges, the size of a watermelon, under her dress. His rough carpenter pants, stained with paint and dust, sway comfortably to the stop and go rhythem of the city bus.
Then she gets on. A bandana around her head. Sweats, fanny pack, glazed eyes that see nothing.
Straight ahead, the bus driver tells her, as she walks carefully up the stairs and sits down to join us, poking a metal stick at the colors and sounds that swirl around that sunny day. My quiet thoughts cheer her on and urge her to keep going. Straight ahead.