By Kevin Patrick McCarthy
Every day, impoverished buskers lay down a diverse soundtrack on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Even as we studiously avoid their eyes, we’re ensnared in their webs of mood and memory. They count on our collective wondering and remembered joys.
My favorite is a skinny longhair. His white whiskers are choppy, as if he shaves with scissors. He sits upright on a stool in front of Ozo’s Coffee, his guitar ringing as he keeps time with an artificial leg. His thin tenor pushes Dylan’s words a few scant yards.
How many roads must a man walk down,
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail,
Before she sleeps in the sand?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
The old hippy sings it with conviction, reminding us of the essential problems of life. I give what I can. He seldom stops playing, so gratitude comes from the eyes.
About a block away, a newcomer paces a wide arc on the cobblestone. He looks like a surfer who’s seen too much – his downcast face flush beneath blonde bangs. He energetically strums an old Martin, accompanied by bells attached to one foot. He also sings a song from the ‘60s – “Do It Again,” by the Beach Boys.
Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout
All the places we’ve surfed and danced and
All the faces we’ve missed so let’s get
Back together and do it again
It’s a surprising choice for a lone minstrel. The original recording was stuffed with rich harmonies, yet this one scruffy guy takes it on without hesitation. A strong cadence in the lyric drives the tune, and the bummed beach boy carries it off well. By themselves, the words seem vapid, yet when ensconced in a deliberate groove, they conjure strong nostalgia. The simple song taps directly into the universal longing to rekindle old magic.
Eighty years ago, another haunting song symbolized an era:
Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Yip Harburg’s lyrics reestablished an essential link between working Americans and the downtrodden. Using code words of intimacy, they reminded us that panhandlers and hobos were the builders and doers of the recent past. There, but for ____, go I.
This time around, even in bleeding-heart Boulder, we’re not yet where old Yip would like us to be. When I expressed disappointment that I hadn’t thought to invite a genial pair of budget travelers in for coffee, our friends were scandalized. When thinly clad characters wander down alleys at dusk, the neighbors assume they’re casing homes for burglary, rather than simply looking for a warm place to sleep.
Make no mistake: However politicians and Wall Street sages want to finesse the narrative, we’re in the midst of an economic depression. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman made that clear in his excellent book, End This Depression Now! (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012). Real suffering permeates our culture. Business owners face tough choices, and it shows. Every day I see people driving unsafe cars, riding bailing-wire bicycles, or walking around clearly in need of food, a friend, or a doctor. Last summer, I picked up a hitchhiker deep in the mountains who did not own shoes.
It’s not just those people who are marginalized. It’s friends, relatives, and nearly any one of us who misses a paycheck or two. Yet we’re in denial. We hold street people at arm’s length because we want to believe they just don’t measure up. They’ve failed, somehow, in being Americans. Illogically, the dismissal is child of a larger fear: that this inadequacy, however deserved, is contagious. As a right-wing bumper sticker puts it, we must guard against “trickle-up poverty.”
The programs launched in the 1930s, to mitigate the Great Depression, were predicated on the notion that, in a foundering economy, or when mammoth undertakings are otherwise required, cooperation must supersede competition. Yet the cooperation we need today is unobtainable unless each of us breaks the dehumanizing habit. We’ll simply refuse to put our shoulders to the wheel of cooperative expansion. We’ll quibble over degrees of selfishness.
Now is the time to engage the strength of unity that our parents and grandparents knew. It’s our turn to be the greatest generation. It begins simply—with looking into the eyes of our brothers and sisters on the street. With crossing the bridge, as Martin Buber would say, from “I-it” to “I-thou.” From there it might progress, for example, to remembering better times with the sad surfer. Seeing the achievement and possibility within each ragged squatter. Seeing it within our collective selves.
Yesterday—a fall day drenched in blue and gold— my favorite busker was playing Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.”
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon
You’re leaving there too soon
I dropped a bill in his guitar case, but didn’t stop, being Busy And Important. Only later did I realize that I’d actually had time for conversation. We might’ve basked briefly together in sunlight, drinking in the mingled aroma of coffee and rotting leaves. I wanted to tell him that a friend of mine once played the song beautifully, before we were twenty ourselves. I wanted to know how the busker learned it and what it means to him. I wanted to know his name.
The marginalized are casting nets—asking us to remember who we are. Let’s allow ourselves to be caught, if only for a golden moment. It’s not possible or desirable to forfeit our own ambitions and “save” everyone. But we can enrich many lives every day, including our own, by propagating the small kindness of not dismissing one another. This feeds an evolution upon which our long-term survival may depend. As the busker might say, there’s another way to interpret “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Kevin McCarthy’s essays and poetry have appeared in many literary journals. “Enough Sky” was commended in The Poetry Society’s 2014 National Competition (UK). Kevin is also a fiction writer, teacher, and geologist. Please see locuto.com for funny stories, film recommendations, and Colorado perspectives.
Photo credit: Lincoln SL Photography via a Creative Commons license.