By Bob Dorn
About 50 feet away, at another bench, a metals guy with two giant white bags calls out, as I take a rest, “Can you play something.”
It’s not exactly a question, but it’s no insult either. It is an interruption, but then so is the trumpet played in the park.
I was doing exercises, at length, three of them: a sounding of all tones on the horn, from a wobbly low F that’s nearly false on up to high C; about 20 odd fingering combinations down in the lower range that are to the fingers what tongue twisters are to the tongue; and II-V-I chord progressions in all 12 keys.
They’re meant to defeat the sometime player. I know I’ll never be able to execute them flawlessly.
“What do you want to hear?” I call out in response to my critic, a lean black man of an age that can’t be determined from the distance I am from his bench. I wasn’t ready to sell out my morning workout for the sake of some general accommodation.
“Any tune,” he answered.
I went to Sonny Rollins’ Sonnymoon for Two, a straight blues, jump-swing thing that appeals to a drinking crowd. I stopped after the four or eight bars; that’s really all there are.
Why don’t you play that way, he asked. Which is not exactly how he asked it; his language was a whole lot more vivid.
I explained that I was practicing, and it wasn’t meant to be music, that it couldn’t be beautiful.
And I can remember him saying, exactly: “But why would you practice what isn’t beautiful?”
“Because we have to practice what we can’t play until we can play it.” I had been ready with the answer; it’s in my reportoire.
And Howard, Homeless Howard, laughed with delight and said, “Now, see, every one can understand that. That’s beautiful.” I’d instinctively been stepping closer as this little opening between us continued to open.
I asked him if he’d played any instrument in his life. It had been a piano, “a little.”
He was down from Sacramento, returning to San Diego where he’d had a job cleaning ovens and their hoods in restaurants. He’d been part of a crew put together and equipped by a man in the business, who in fact lived in the North Park neighborhood beyond the tennis courts.
“Did you wear the mask, and get in and out fast?” (I’d worked in a restaurant kitchen when I was a kid.)
“Oh sure, and goggles; you have to keep from taking in those cleaning chemicals.”
Lamely I observed how important lungs are. “Oh yes, they’re good for those who want to breathe,” and here he flashed a brilliant smile and winked.
Howard, my critic, had only just contacted the restaurant cleaning man, and thought it might work out again. He insisted God would find something for him to do. A compact bible was on the bench beside him. He’s been homeless for seven years.
In Sacramento he’d been orbiting Fish and Loaf, a Christian homeless service center he said was all business and without much personal reaching out, though it had been truly oriented toward helping.
Returning to San Diego, he found downtown’s homeless sector — that limbo between East Village’s hyper-developed condo ghetto and the northern reaches of Barrio Logan – had changed markedly. He said he was struck by how the atmosphere in the street was getting malevolent, and that people weren’t looking out for each other. They weren’t trying to find work and a snug place anymore.
“They’re doing the thug-life down there,” he said. He didn’t want to criticize St. Vincent de Paul, and I didn’t think it was in him to do it. “Look here,” he said, removing his cap to reveal a knot on his well-shaped skull.
In truth, his head’s shape, almost lightbulb-round at the high crown, together with a right angled jaw and aquiline nose reminded me of my long-dead Uncle Frankie, once the daytime concierge at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel who wore thin Italian suits and knew Dolores del Rio and Walter Pidgeon back in the day.
Howard’s knot had healed, his eye a little less, the remaining evidence of an attack while he was sleeping below East Village. Somebody wanted his back pack and got it.
He wonders why cities don’t issue what amounts to i.d./passport cards that can be presented by individuals when they’re checking in and out of the service centers, with reports or ratings from their now-and-then and sometime employers on what they’d done, and were capable of doing.
Presumably, the thugs wouldn’t carry them and wouldn’t be interested in them.
I told him it seemed like a grand, spanking-new idea, that made a lot of sense. I wonder if it will fail to interest a world suspicious of sensible ideas. We shook hands and wished each other well. Maybe we’ll see each other in the park again.
This one’s for you, Howard.
photo via via Erik at Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/penforhire/27223428/