I was admiring the beautiful blue sky and lush spring plants when I realized I had been walking in pace with someone else on the wide cement path. I glanced over to see a burly, rough-faced man, dressed all in black, with a Bob Marley cap. His face was round and wrinkled, deep lines carved into his weathered, tanned skin. His eyebrows were wiry, gray and wild, but something about his face seemed kind. Maybe it was his warm brown eyes.
He was carrying a black guitar case held together with brightly colored bungee cords, and an overstuffed, well-worn black backpack.
He didn't seem homeless, but I assumed from his guitar case that he was a street musician, a busker. (I later found out that I was right.)
I wanted to say something to him, to reach out to this stranger walking the same path as myself. But I couldn't think of what to say. I had no motive other than the desire to reach out to a fellow human being who caught my eye. I was genuinely interested in his story.
I turned to face him, smiled, and asked if he knew a good place for lunch. He seemed a little surprised that I was speaking to him, and took several seconds of, "Ummmmm..." before he responded. He threw out a few random restaurant suggestions, but I could tell he was gauging me and giving me the tourist response, trying to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear. (Applebee's is not a local joint, and definitely not 'good.')
I interrupted him and pointedly asked, "Would you like to have lunch with me?" He paused. Suddenly I felt like I had been aggressive and sorta creepy, so I backtracked a little. Here I am, random red-headed chubby tourist harassing local street musician! "It's okay if you don't, but I'm hungry and I could use some company."
"Oh, it's not that, ma'am," he replied. "Its that I just ate lunch, so I'm not hungry."
"Okay then, well, thanks for your help," I said, a little rejected.
"Well, I'd be happy to sit with you, while you eat. I could use some company too."
I smiled. He smiled. I noticed he was missing his lower front teeth, at least four of them.
"My name's Jen." "Nice to meet you, Jen. I'm Dave." "It's nice to meet you, Dave."
We walked to a restaurant nearby that Dave said was nice and always crowded. We ate outside on the patio. The warmth of the Southern California sun tickled my shoulders as I ordered the special and Dave ordered a Bud Light.
We chatted about lots of things. I asked Dave about his music, what he played, how long. It was mostly small talk stuff, but it was nice. Pleasant and warm, just like the weather. Some of the time I wasn't sure if Dave was telling me the truth, making things up, or telling what he thought I might want to hear. But it didn't matter and I didn't care. I was drinking in his stories as he was drinking in his beer. Truth or not, Dave was fascinating.
The conversation points, mostly small details about his life, were all over the place. Dave has lived a long, complicated life. He's kept himself very busy in his years. Some of the details I remember:
- Dave lives on a boat that is for now, dry-docked. He pays $385/month to store it, and they let him live there without hassle. He has internet access there (!!!).
- He loves living on a boat. "When I turn the key in the door to my home, I can go anywhere. When you live in a house and turn that key, you're trapped the minute you walk inside."
- Dave is an ex-Marine and served in Vietnam.
- Dave worked to drive an 18-wheeler. It had a sleeper cab and mini-fridge.
- Dave worked for BlueCross.
- Dave was a studio musician for many years, doing lead guitar and backup guitar for lots of music professionals, mostly in Nashville. He has been playing guitar since he was a kid.
- Dave currently likes to play a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Bob Marley when he performs.
- Dave worked for 20 years in computers. He did IT infrastructure in the 80s.
- When Dave decides its time for a 'working vacation' he heads down to Mexico in his boat and alternates between cleaning boats in the local marina and setting lobster traps and selling them to the locals for $12 each.
- Dave has lived in California, Tennessee, Texas, Quebec and Mexico. He calls himself a California Cowboy.
I was happy to oblige him with my own stories, details about my life, my recent questionings and wonderings. A little part of me was hoping he'd pass on some sage wisdom or offer up some life lesson, but he just listened and asked questions. No judgment, no advice, just listening. It was refreshing, really. We both just opened up and accepted the other without judgment, preconceived notions, or ulterior motive.
Dave is very serious. He didn't laugh or smile much. There was a lingering sadness to his eyes despite their warmth and kindness. There was a lot going on in his mind, and I couldn't tell if he was on the verge of sharing something deep or on the verge of getting up and leaving. Something told me that the second Bud Light helped him make the decision to stay.
I was really tempted to ask him for a photograph, to ask the waitress to take a photo of myself and my new friend, Dave. But I chickened out. I was worried it would make Dave feel like this had all been an experiment or a bet, I worried I would make him feel weird. I didn't have the guts to admit that I just really liked him and wanted to have a photo of him to remember him by. I wish I had done it.
When I left, I gave Dave every bill in my wallet (I didn't actually count, but I think it was about $37). I told him that next time I was in town, I wanted to hear him play. I said that if I had heard him playing, I was sure that's how much I would have given him anyway. He was very thankful and made me promise to find him next time I was in town. I promised. I gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
As I walked away from the restaurant, I wondered about Dave and his life. Where was his family now? Were they alive and wondering where he was? Did something tragic happen or did life slowly dissolve into a string of disappointments and eroded relationships? Dave obviously carries regret along with him when he carries his guitar, but though burdened he also seemed to cherish his freedom. Or maybe he just drowns his regret in booze every day so can make it through to the next morning.
The details of Dave's life aren't my concern. Dave and I don't have much in common on the surface, but I felt drawn to him and I am incredibly thankful to have had the chance to sit down and talk to him. It felt nice to step out of my little self-involved, self-assessing world for a few minutes and truly connect with a fellow human being. (And a fascinating one at that!) Sometimes to find the answers we truly need, we have to look deep inside ourselves. And sometimes we have to see that the world is bigger than ourselves, wider, deeper and more complicated. But in the end, we're all just trying to survive, as happily as possible, one day at a time.
From the light in my heart to the light in your heart, where we are both the same, I honor you, Dave. I hope I get to hear your music soon.