It was just another errand on a sunny autumn afternoon as I strode up the sidewalk to the Rite Aid. He was perched on a folding stool at the front door, a high-mileage Fender acoustic in hand, strumming a ballad in A minor.
I stopped next to him, nodded, and listened: mid sixties, a stubbly, graying beard, bright brown eyes beneath a knit cap. His battered, open case displayed a collage of picks, old string packs, an elastic capo, some singles and change, and a handwritten sign appealing for donations to our local children’s hospital.
He paused and smiled at me. “Nice,” I said, as I propped my foot on the curb. ”How long have you been playing?”
“Since I was a kid,” he began. “I’m retired now. Audio engineer. But I still do some work.” He took out his phone and showed me a picture of his mixing board. Rows and rows of faders stretched across the panel.
“Whoa,” I said, “that’s one serious system.” As we talked tech, he grew more animated. The conversation swung from speaker horns to Dylan to William and Mary to front of house. “Let me show you where I was a few days ago.” I pulled out my phone and found the group picture from the fingerstyle retreat. His face lit up as if a spotlight hit it.
“Wow! And that’s you! Where was this?”
“Outside Nashville. It’s a little workshop put on by a friend who teaches and does session work there. It’s like a family reunion.”
“That is so-o-o cool.” He handed my phone back. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“I’m Diane.” I took his hand. “And you’re—“
“Mike. It’s so nice to meet you, Diane. This is great.” He held out his guitar. “Would you like to play something?”
A customer stopped and dropped a bill in his case. I shrugged. “Why not?” I said. “You like the Eagles?”
“Sure,” he said, as we traded places. I took his guitar. The strings felt rough from overwork, but it was in tune. I glanced at the headstock and felt a 50-year flashback to my first guitar, another Fender. More customers passed by, coming and going. I serenaded them with “Most of Us Are Sad”. Mike smiled appreciatively. Lost in the song, I forgot where I was until the end. “Thanks, Mike, but l better get my prescription before I forget why I came here. Be right back.”
A few minutes later, I returned. He was still strumming, but his expression had turned sober. I was pondering what to say when a middle aged woman carrying a large tote approached him from the parking lot. “You’ll have to go now,” she said solemnly. Shift manager? I wondered.
“All right,” he said. He stood up and turned to me. “Hey, Diane, you’ve made my day. Really. I’m lost for words.”
“Well, then, Mike, we’re even. Keep on playing.”
“And you, too.” He took the sign and money out of the case, gently rested the Fender inside, and closed it. I unlocked my car and glanced back as he gathered his belongings.
Two kindred spirits, I thought, crossing paths one afternoon, on a random sidewalk.