“Hey, man. Can I sing you a song?” I’ve heard the request before, but the circumstances are usually a little different. I nod my head and give the young man my full attention. Well, maybe not my full attention. You see, there are other people in the music store and they are bound to wonder what’s going on, so I’m a little preoccupied as I gaze at the boy and his too-small guitar.
The family had taken the place by storm just moments before, sweeping in and demanding that I put a new set of strings on the cheap Oriental-built half-size instrument. It was hardly worthy to be called a guitar. With a knife, someone had scratched the word “dorkville” into the finish on top of the shabby instrument. I noted that the bridge had been reattached to the body with “gorilla” glue, a slimy, expanding substance which the makers claim to be “made for the toughest jobs on earth”. I’m not a fan, simply because of the mess it invariably causes. On this instrument, it didn’t seem out of place. At first, I was tempted to tell the matronly woman who had requested my immediate attention to the task of replacing strings that I can’t work on such a sad example for a guitar, but my attention was drawn to the face of the boy who placed the instrument carefully into my hands. The tell-tale signs were there in his face…there was no question that the boy was mentally challenged. But, it was the pleading look in his eyes that got to me, almost as if he had anticipated my objections and was begging me to overlook the flaws in his beloved musical companion. I complied with the woman’s loud instructions, but truth be told, I simply wanted to make sure that the boy had a playable instrument when he left. I installed the strings.
As I completed the task, I gently handed the guitar back to the boy and took the lady’s money. One of their party headed out the door, but then the boy made his request. I could see an apologetic look on the two remaining ladies’ faces, but I encouraged the young “musician” to go ahead, so he launched into his song. My careful tuning of the guitar was of no consequence, I quickly noted. His left hand went to one position on the neck, carefully pressed down three strings into a non-chord and never moved for the entire performance. The right hand clutched a pick which was banged back and forth against the mono-tonal strings and the boy sang, rather appropriately, in about the same manner, a song which took about five minutes to unfold. The piece which he had memorized word for word, was a current hit song. It had crude language and he mispronounced many of the words, but he worked his way inexorably through it, never faltering as the phone rang behind me (I ignored it) or even as a customer scurried out the door (she didn’t want to be drawn into the odd performance, perhaps).
Throughout the boy’s recitation–it could hardly be called singing–his mother (perhaps, grandmother) gazed at him without a hint of embarrassment and without speaking. He finally finished with a flourish of his picking hand and looked at me. “Well?” I murmured my thanks and told him I was glad that he had his guitar back in working condition. He grinned at me and headed out the door. Not one of the customers in the store said a word more about the “performance”.
You know, recently, I’ve been thinking more about the way we respond to people. A friend mentioned this afternoon that he appreciated that I don’t make a habit of “qualifying” people in my store. We were talking about the sales technique of sizing up a customer before determining what to sell them, but he explained that the statement extended to my personal reaction to people too. I thanked him and told him that he was wrong. I do qualify people. We all do to a certain extent. I work at not doing it, but there is no doubt that our human nature inclines us to determine what we can get from the person standing in front of us, when we are deciding how we’ll treat them. Frequently, when we don’t think that we will reap a benefit, we dismiss the person. I know that I do.
As I pondered my friend’s remark, my thoughts ran back to the boy’s song this morning. It was a crude country song, with words which I will not repeat here, but the message struck me anew. Although you’d never recognize it, the song tells the story of the prodigal son, the singer going to exotic locales with money and friends, and coming home again because the friends desert him when the money runs out. I know that the story of the prodigal son is told for a different reason, but I wonder if Jesus didn’t have more than one conclusion in mind. As I consider tonight, I’m thinking that in part, the tale was intended to influence how we respond to people who have varying abilities to reward our attention.
We are naturally attracted to the beautiful, to the erudite, and to the well-off. We, just as naturally, find ways to avoid the poor, the dirty, and the illiterate. We may say that we don’t, and may even make an effort to include them in our interactions, but at the end of the day, we want to spend time with people who offer what we find attractive. We don’t want to spend time with those who can give us nothing and only take what we have to offer. I’m thinking that we can do better.
Today, I resolve to listen to, and be impressed with, the performances of those who cannot wow me with their talent. I resolve to spend just as much time with folks who will always be needy as I spend with those who fill my needs. I’m not sure how well I’ll do at it, but it is a goal to which we all should aspire. Our God, we are told, is no respecter of persons. How do we dare to be satisfied with anything less?
I hope the young man finds better material to sing. I hope that he will also find someone who can help him to learn a chord or two along the way. I somehow think that we all need what he needed today, which was simply to be accepted for who he is and to have his “gifts” appreciated without criticism.
I’m hoping that someone will be there someday to listen to my song, when I’m ready to sing it. How about it? Can I sing you a song?
“For God does not show favoritism.”
“Adios and vaya con Dios,
Going home now to stay…
Life is good today. Life is good today.”
(“Toes”~recorded by Zac Brown Band)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.