“I’ve had that guitar for fifteen years. Put it together with my own hands. I’m really going to miss it. But today is her birthday. It’s time for it to go.”
I didn’t want his guitar. It was a cheap instrument when he rescued it from the dumpster fifteen years ago. He had glued the back on badly, so badly the edges hung over the sides instead of meeting them smoothly. It should have had low-tension nylon strings running up the fingerboard to the headstock, but the bronze strings he was trying to bring into tune were already warping the neck. The bridge…
Oh. You get the picture. I didn’t want his guitar.
Yet, there he stood, head cocked to the side expectantly. He needed money to buy his wife a present. He knows me. He was sure cash would appear in my hands very soon.
He was right.
But, not for the reason you might think. I’m not some nice guy. I’m not a saint who can’t stand to see people down on their luck. I’m certainly not a philanthropist who looks for folks to whom I can give a hand-out.
Yesterday, I would have shoved that guitar case back at him and told him I had no need for it. I’ve done that several times recently.
I’m getting good at saying no. Sometimes it almost feels good to grit my teeth and turn away the opportunity to be generous.
You know what I mean, don’t you?
“This is mine. You can’t have it! I earned it the old-fashioned way.”
Not this afternoon, though.
Why? Well–this morning happened before this afternoon.
This morning, my other down-and-out friend came in, selling his guitar. If you could call it that. Guitar-shaped-object would be closer to the truth. You see, he too is a dumpster diver. Has been for years. I’ve been the recipient of a number of his finds, as has the local recycling center. He likes me better because I don’t make him give me a fingerprint every time he sells me something.
On this day, I turned him down. Flat. I didn’t want that awful instrument in my store. I was polite, but firm. He shrugged and turned away momentarily. Then something stopped him.
Another customer was playing one of the guitars up toward the front of the store. He was good. Really good. The strong chords and beautiful melody hung in the air, almost seeming to breathe fresh air into the atmosphere, previously sullied by the stench of the old fellow’s ragged clothes and unwashed body. It was as if something had taken him by the arm and held him in place.
The filthy old man (he’s a year older than I am, but looks to be ten years my senior) stood stock still for a moment, and a sigh escaped his lungs. Then, he moved the few steps back in front of where I still waited behind the counter, and he rested his soil-blackened hands, nail fungus and all, on the glass before me.
“I used to play like that. Was even going to Nashville once. I’m on the You-tubes, you know.”
His story spilled out. Famous people who used to play with him, promotional posters in taverns, sponsors in the business community, cirrhosis of the liver, contracts from record companies. It was disjointed and incredible. No really–incredible, meaning not believable.
Well, except for the taverns and cirrhosis part.
You think I listened to his story and gave him money, don’t you? You think the old softie gave in and purchased that awful guitar.
I didn’t. I wanted nothing more than to get that stench out of my store. I wanted–I wanted him to go away so I could sell a guitar to a real customer before he walked out.
It sounds so awful when I see it written in black and white.
The man playing guitar started to return the instrument to the hanger on the wall. Well, there you go! He couldn’t stand the smell anymore and would leave. My fears were coming to fruition. I would be left with the old junkman and the real person would walk out the door.
Suddenly, I heard a voice begging the guitarist to stay. “Play some more. Don’t stop.”
It wasn’t my voice, but that of the man across the counter. He walked up to where the musician was taking another guitar down from the rack and he sat down beside him. Beside him!
All I could think of was the filth and the stench, and my poor customer. I needn’t have worried.
They sat, one playing the guitar, the other telling his cockamamie story once again, with embellishments. At one point, the story-teller pulled down a different guitar and attempted to play a chord or two, but he wasn’t up to the task.
I was waiting for the guitar player to flee. I was sure he’d never darken the door of my store again. How much worse could it get for him?
Then I heard him ask the old fellow if he wanted to come play with him sometime. Really? Had I heard that right?
Even stranger, the guitarist suggested he would give the old guy his name and phone number so he could contact him. I was even more surprised. Why would a man do that?
The old junkman stood up to leave and his new friend put his hand out to shake his filthy one. He even reached over and put his arm around the old guy’s shoulder and reminded him to call him when he got a chance. He touched him!
I stood there ashamed. Ashamed.
I sit here and still, I feel it.
But this afternoon–when I had another opportunity–I rose to the occasion.
I hope I will again tomorrow.
And the day after that.
“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
(Albert Schweitzer ~ German theologian/medical missionary ~ 1875-1965)
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
(Matthew 25:40 ~ NIV)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.