He had watched the sun come up from his vantage point on the western bank of the rolling river, the Mighty Mississippi, while listening to the dulcet tones of the old trumpet player and, with tears still in his eyes, turned away to wander back into Jackson Square, just as the city of New Orleans was waking. The restaurants were busy, the coffee shops crowded, but he hadn’t come to eat. For two hours or more, he wandered the streets, finding exactly what he was seeking for. He had forced himself out of bed while it was still dark just so he could listen to the street musicians and listen, he did.
No slouch of a guitar player himself, he was anxious to sample the varied fare this aged city had to offer. There was no disappointment in the search. From street corners and even in the alleys, the city is full of people with their talents on display. Many do it for the love of their craft, others simply to have enough to fill their stomachs. He was to find a third type on this day.
The seeker stopped for a few moments at one corner to listen to the two women playing classical music, a departure from the normal street fare in this city of Jazz and Blues. Speaking for a moment with another man standing nearby, he learned that both were music professors in nearby universities. He dropped a dollar or two in the open violin case and moved on. Many of the musicians he listened to were not as well educated, but he avers that all were just as talented. Except one.
The old fellow had a good quality guitar sitting on his lap. The ancient Guild six-string might have seen better days, but it was a fine instrument. Still, he never played a single chord. Our friend wondered why this was so and walked a bit nearer to the bench the aging man was occupying. It did seem to him that the fellow was old, but he really is not sure. Living on the streets will age a person long before his time. He might have been as young as thirty or as old as sixty. It was hard to tell. As he drew near, though, the tourist saw the problem. While there should have been six, the old acoustic guitar only had three strings stretched out along the length of the fingerboard. Even they were old and corroded. The other street musicians had played for whatever money the passersby would toss in their hats or cases, but this fellow had a different tack. “Say, could you give me the money to buy a set of strings?” Our friend almost fell for the scam. After all, what was five or six dollars? Give the old guy enough to buy a set of strings so he could earn a living…how could that go wrong? Then he had an idea. “I saw a music store up the block a ways. How about you and I go and we’ll get a set put on your guitar? I’ll pay whatever it costs.”
The old guy wasn’t amused. That was the last thing he wanted. “No. I’ll just take the money for the strings.” The tourist talked with him for just a minute more. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what the money would be used for. There was never to be a new set of strings on the guitar. It would never play a song on that street corner–ever. The fellow with the guitar knew how to make money with his guitar, he just couldn’t play it. The superbly crafted instrument, with the potential for making sweet music lifting the spirit to the heavens, or bringing tears to the eyes of hardened men who listened, was nothing but a prop for an act. If it had strings on it, he couldn’t make a dime with it. He wasn’t a musician at all, just a man with a scam, a fraud, to be perpetrated on every unsuspecting tourist who came by. Our friend moved on, disappointed.
I listen to the story and my mind wanders. I remember the fellow I gave a ride to one day recently. I drove him twenty miles out of my way and handed him all the cash I had in my pocket, so he could make it home to his wife and kids by bus. Two days later, as he wandered past my music store, it was a shock to realize that I had been played. Then there was that other fellow I loaned money to, just until he got paid from his new job. The job was a lie–so was the payback. The stories, just like the street “musician” with his guitar–merely the tools of the trade, designed to achieve a purpose, but never to become reality.
Just as quickly, my mind shifts gears, and I wonder how many folks I have conned, in much the same way; people who have poured resources into my life, with the promise that changes would be made, never to see or hear a result. How am I any different from the old fellow down in the French Quarter, with his beautiful guitar which never will make music? Still, I show up time after time, with habits which need to be broken, sins which need to be repented of, steps which never seem to be taken. And, no music is ever heard.
How about it? Got a few broken strings yourself? Have there been promises made of changes to come, with nary a hint of actual rehabilitation? Do you come and sit on the same street corner every day, or perhaps every week, with the same broken strings; always with the promise to show up with a playable instrument the next time?
I’m guessing that if we look deep inside, we’ll all find the broken promises, the scams, the assurances which we don’t seem to ever quite fulfill. Like the man on the street corner, we have figured out how to make the system work for us, always thinking that we’ll make it right–someday.
All right, I’ll quit preaching. Anyway, I’m thinking it’s about time for a new set of strings to be taken down from the wall. There’s a good bit of grime to be cleaned away before they can be installed, but the basic instrument was made well. I’m confident that when the job is done, there will be some excellent music heard.
It’s just the process of cleaning and stretching, then cutting and tuning that I’m not real sure of. It all sounds a bit painful. Ah well, I know the Maker of the music, the Master Luthier. I’m thinking the final result will be worth it all.
His work never fails to produce some gorgeous music. Maybe it’s about time that I put my hat down on the street.
Why don’t you come too? We just might make some great music together!
“Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.”
(from “Rescue The Perishing”~Fannie Crosby~American hymn writer~1820-1915)
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
(George Orwell~English novelist~1903-1950)
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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.