Neighbors: Duet With A Drifter

Dec 22, 2007

Not too long ago, I observed from a distance a wiry, bearded, and poorly-dressed middle-aged fellow in the grocery store. Clearly, circumstance had dealt harshly with this one-time “flower child” over the years: The appearance of his skin, eyes, and teeth suggested health that had been systematically compromised by some rather poor choices in his time.

Standing in the doorway, this man seemed quite upset about something; others were avoiding him. I approached him and we talked. Somewhat unusually, given the setting, we also, in time, elected to sing. On the off-chance you were there, you may remember having seen us; we were the unique pair covering Chicago’s ’70s mega-hit “Colour My World” while strolling down through Frozen Foods. An impromptu rendering, granted, but given the conditions I think we were rather decent. However, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

You see, on entering the store, the man in question had parked his backpack, along with a grocery bag from another shop, on the floor beside the entrance. I know this because I myself spied these unattended on entering and imagined the owner, while definitely taking a chance, would be right back.

Well, when I first saw this spirited individual, his little shopping bag had just been swiped. Though the backpack, amazingly, had been left behind, he said repeatedly of the lost items, “That was my food, man…That was my food…”, as if it would have been better for his personal belongings to have suddenly gone missing for good. We queried the management concerning the plastic bag, to no avail.

So he once again lamented the downward spiral in which human decency and compassion had been caught, then I led him to the discount section for replacement items. It was there I learned that this man, now down to only a backpack’s contents and a bit of tobacco, was a songwriter who’d made his way from here to California and back—and had done so never once having got behind the wheel, never once having purchased a ticket to ride. As I mulled over the possibilities of such a free-wheeling existence, he began to share a little of his music with me. And you know what? He was good.

One of his pieces was inspired by the aforementioned Chicago tune, and that fact soon led us into performance mode, starting near the frozen vegetarian meat-substitutes. Impervious to glances, we went right through to the celebrated flute-solo finale, eventually reached the checkout, and then stepped back into the sun. I enjoyed remembering that fine old song, and having (quite) unexpected cause, and desire, to muddle through it here with an uncommon stranger.

On departing from me, The Stranger gave me a blessing, seeming genuinely happy, at last. Then I went back to my non-free-wheeling daily round.

Where he went, I do not know.