Harlan

I don’t know his name for sure but I think somebody said “Hi Harlan”” to him from their car stopped at an intersection. He is well known in those parts.

I’ve seen him for months on the streets, and since I’ve been here less than a year, I’d guess he’s been there much longer. He looks to be in his 60s, and walks with a single crutch at all times, such that your can hear him coming even when you don’t see him. He accosts almost every passer-by with a much garbled “Could you spare a dollar, I’m trying to get something to eat”. He seems to be reasonably successful, based on the number of people I see stopped with him, and as far as I can tell, he actually uses the money for food, not alcohol (a big issue with street beggars). He has, for all I can tell, not a soul in this world to count on for anything. I have no idea where he stays at night.

When I first saw him last summer he acted as described above. I had not seen him throughout the winter, yesterday being the first time I’d ventured out on the streets in that area. Harlan was still begging but now also yelling intermittently–incoherent phrases aimed at nobody in particular, and with gusto.

It was still chilly out, but I found a nice spot in the afternoon sun and set down my guitar and amp and plugged in and set up. I could hear Harlan coming down the sidewalk, and he pointed at my stuff and mumbled something incoherent that appeared to involve some danger of being arrested by the cops or something, I’m not sure. I replied “OK man” and continued with what I was doing, and Harlan moved on.

There was hardly anybody on the streets but it was downright comfortable for the first time in months so I started playing, for the practice if nothing else. I soon noticed a guy off to my right 10 yards, smoking a cigarette and listening. A few minutes later he came up and said he had no money with him but if he did he’d give me some, because I sounded great, quite similar to Pat Metheney. He was a bassist; he knew music and paid me other generous compliments. I replied no problem man, being compared favorably to Pat Metheny is worth more to me than dollar or two. He left but came back soon with two friends, threw in a tip and we all talked briefly about guitar favorites: Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder, and Chris Smither in particular. I convinced them that yes, they really should see Chris when he comes to town in May. And Leo Kottke’s song “I Yell at Traffic” came to my mind.

I resumed playing and a little later, Harlan came around the corner, yelling, stopped for a minute, and then sat down on some restaurant steps a few feet away. He stopped yelling and muttering to himself. He just say there, listening. Sensing this, I broke into a slow and deliberate rendition of arguably the most beautiful song I know, Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna, a waltz which I do in the key of A. Harlan continued to sit and gaze into the distance, in the warm sun and listen, the sound reverberating through the street. And then through another piece, before getting up and continuing his march. Hopefully, a few minutes of beauty and solace in an otherwise desperate existence.

If I see him again, I’m going to do it again, except that I’m going to try to play the best thing my fingers will generate.

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