As dusk settles into dark, Seattle’s downtown area seems to become progressively seedier. Groups of homeless huddle around bottles too soon empty, and cackle at passersby. Storefronts are shuttered and locked tight. The streets are poorly lit with the exception of a few bars and restaurants hoping to attract tourists staying downtown.
Jesus and I are in search of dinner, and post-meal shopping at a 24-hour supermarket on our hotel map. We’re too tired to explore much, so we end up at the Pike Place Brewery, a tourist trap recommended by our hotel concierge, an unpleasant fifty-something woman suffering from severe helmet hair. This is a person who is paid to help guests, who when asked for suggestions about things to do outside near the city immediately suggested an all day whale-watching tour that would cost us over $400 and was rather miffed when I shook my head, panicked at the price, and asked her if there were any easy hikes in the city itself, or if we could get anywhere in public transport.
After zigzagging the streets to avoid encounters with street people, we finally get to the brewery. We share a pricy meal of beer (more beer than food, perhaps), clams in spicy coconut sauce, and fish and chips and then leave the brewery to roam the streets yet again, this time in search of the 24-hour supermarket. When we find it, the lights are so low, I assume it’s closed until a couple of guys walk up to the door, open it and go in. I shrug at Jesus and we follow. Inside everything is priced like a hotel gift shop, so we leave empty-handed.
We’re within a few feet of the hotel entrance, and I almost don’t notice the man approaching us– I’m very busy rolling my eyes and making faces as Jesus jokes about going back to Helmet-hair and asking her further questions. So we’re almost to the hotel’s revolving door when the man, who’s been inching his way closer, nervously taps Jesus on the shoulder, “Got a minute?”
Scarecrow thin, in a faded shirt and raggedy jeans, he has a scraggly white beard sprouting from his chin. Around his neck hangs an empty Culligan water bottle decorated with cellophane tape and a white sheet of printer paper with his name and picture. He doesn’t look dangerous, just a little wild around the eyes, desperate, maybe.
After too many years living and traveling in big cities, I’m prepared to ignore him and bulldoze my way into the hotel, when Jesus (who’s been living in big cities even longer) inexplicably stops and turns, dragging me with him.
Jesus smiles and holds out a dollar, but the man refuses. He clears his throat. He just wants us to listen. He’ll make us some music, stuff he wrote himself and if we like it, we can pay him.
Which is fine and good, but I’m tired and longing for bed, not to mention paranoid that he’s running a two-person scam, and while he has us distracted, his back-up will do their best to relieve us of our valuables. But Jesus nods at him, smiles and says “ok, sure” in his quiet way, so I smile too, trying not to look as annoyed or reluctant as I feel.
“I lost my family, so you know,” he offers, “but now I make music, all the time. I’ve got some videos on youtube, you can look them up,” he gestures at the picture of himself on the sheet of paper.
He slides a look at me, and then back to Jesus. “I’ll sing for this pretty lady of yours,” he says. I try harder not to look put-out and my reservations melt away a little, when he starts to sing.
He sounds sort of like Bob Marley, if Bob Marley had walked the streets of Seattle and played bongo on an empty water jug. His face is transformed, and the haunted man with darting eyes disappears. He is suddenly at peace, eyes closed, lips curved in a gentle smile, swaying with the wind as he drums on his water bottle, singing a song about love lost.
When he finishes, and Jesus pulls out the dollar again, he takes it, carefully stowing it away in his left-side pocket, asking us if we liked his song. Jesus says very good, and I force my lips into a final smile, trying very hard not to think about a life lived on the street.
Because no matter who or what is behind such an existence, it makes me sad. It makes me want to yell after the street musician, flag him down and give him a twenty dollar bill, do something, anything to fix it, and make it all better somehow.
But I’m too slow to act. He’s already a block away, fading into the darkness and it’s too late now. I’ve lost the chance to help someone who moved me on a direct, personal level. Unlike donations to charities or taxes paid, the decision to help this man in particular, to show him how his talent moved me, with my own money, would be completely my own doing, completely my own responsibility.
And I did nothing, gave nothing, barely even smiled. And even after so much time, I can’t come up with any reasonable excuse.
After some serious searching on the web, it seems I’ve found him and a way to share how much his talent moved me with the world.
Check out the video of the Glen Pops Freeman below, like it on youtube. If you find yourself in downtown Seattle, you may be lucky enough to hear him play.
Read more about my time in Seattle, here.