I walked up to Chipotle before work the other day and there was a guy with a guitar on the sidewalk outside playing a song. He was young with long hair. The type you might expect to find playing a guitar in a random strip mall. He had an open guitar case by his feet (the international sign for “I really want to make my money off of music, man, but it’s entirely possible my drug habit is ruining my finances, bro.”). Inside the case were a few dollars and a sign that said “My only survival kit.”
I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was his voice, which sounded a little like a long-haired kid I used to write songs with in college. Maybe it was the 110-degree heat in Phoenix. Maybe it was the fact that I’m a father now and I’m supposed to, you know, look out for things.
Whatever it was, I felt moved. Not sorry for. Not indebted to. Just moved that this guy was playing music in such a public place and maybe music was all he had and very likely he was being ignored.
So I told myself I would put some money in his guitar case on my way out. But a few minutes later, I walked out of Chipotle with my burrito bowl in a bag, my wallet in my pocket, my eyes cast down. The voice in my head telling me to stop, but my feet headed toward my car, away from the guitar and the voice that seemed strangely familiar. Headed off to work.
I am in the TV news business and when I get to work each day I hear and see horrible things. On this day it was two priests attacked in a church. One dead. It was a man who killed his girlfriend’s daughter because he wanted her to eat faster. It was a Boy Scout leader arrested 30 years after the fact for molesting kids. It was a puppy thrown out of a car.
Even when I go on vacation, the bad news is there. I was in Egypt in 2011 when I turned on the BBC and saw that there had been a shooting in Tucson. A week later, I was back in Arizona when I heard there’d been a revolution in Egypt.
None of this is meant to depress you. It’s part of our world. It just is.
But we all want to figure out why. Why are kids shooting other kids at schools? Why are parents being so cruel to children they brought into the world? Why is power wielded so brutally? Why do so many people seem to be so isolated, so angry, so confused that they are willing or eager to hurt others?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
But the guy with the guitar got to me the other day. And as I walked the 50 yards or so to my car, the voice in my head kept getting louder. It said: you have to go back.
And so I did. Which surprised me. I’m not a bleeding heart. I don’t usually toss money at strangers, even the ones with funny signs or sad stories. Too often, I think of them as “other.”
Now, as I reached into my wallet, I thought about why I was going back this time. Why bother? And immediately, I knew the answer. It was the simplest of all human tasks. It was important to me to acknowledge that he exists.
Maybe he didn’t need my validation. Maybe he wasn’t one of those isolated, marginalized people I hear about when I walk into work. The type described in the aftermath of some horrible tragedy as a “nice guy” who “kept to himself” and didn’t seem to be “capable” of such a thing. Maybe the guy in front of me just liked playing his guitar. But that’s the thing. No one ever knows.
So I took my measly dollar, dropped it in his guitar case, looked him in the eye, and said, “You sound good.” He was playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and it really did sound good. He acknowledged my words and, after a brief pause, said thank you as he continued strumming. And then I turned and walked away, knowing I’ll probably never see him again.
The whole encounter lasted maybe 5 seconds and cost me one dollar. I don’t know his back story. He doesn’t know mine. I do know in that moment, we both felt good.
And I thought as I walked back to my car: what if this is how we fight human sadness and cruelty? A tool in our survival kit? What if we consistently turned our eyes toward those who we are inclined to ignore and said to them, somehow:
You exist. And that is noble, and that is powerful, and that is important.