Walking down 4th Street, I passed all the touristy stuff and kept walking. Being inside an over-air conditioned convention center for hours getting high off fulfillment fumes and intense insta-connections with people you’ve just met is exhausting, and I was exhausted. So I was walking, trying to stay awake long enough to go to the Service of the Living Tradition at 8:30 pm.
I heard him before I saw him. “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” he sang, in a deep, ringing voice edged by desparation. I’m sorry, but I know that sound. That’s a drug addict sound, the end of a phrase that scratches and cries like that. And I have come to understand that that’s a street showman’s sound, a sound destined to attract nice white ladies like me. Which is to say, I think he saw me coming.
I wish we didn’t have to play this game, this Po’ Black Man Singing the Blues Encounters Enchanted White Lady who will stop — because she’s so open-minded and liberal like that — to talk about what a good voice he has, to exchange pious niceties for a minute until we can get to the business of exchanging ten or twenty bucks for a good story and a merit badge on the White Liberal Scouts sash.
He gets the money, I get the story. In the process, we steal each other’s souls a little bit, because we’re both lying. We’re standing there on 4th Street and he knows I like his singing, so he performs for me like an organ grinder’s monkey. I stand there feeling sad and grossed out, because this is what we’ve trained each other to do in this hideous system of racism that traps us in these pitiable urban tableaux.
Later, at home, I will listen to Paula Deen’s smug white Southern explanation of how the black people who worked for her ancestors and her own family were like family to them, and I will curl my lip so far that it reaches my left nostril. Oh, no she did NOT JUST CALL A BLACK MAN ONTO THE STAGE TO DO THE MONKEY DANCE FOR HER. Oh yes she did. And the white audience tittered. They didn’t boo her off the stage. No one yelled “SHUT UP, Paula!” when she drawled “and he’s as black as that board over there!” They didn’t throw things at her utterly self-satisfied, pink face.
But we’re in this moment, the street singer and me, and we’re doing the step-and-shuffle dance of race relations ourselves. The street singer is sweaty and fidgety – he wants to get a hand-out and be on his way — and he figures that Jesus will get him there, assuming, I suppose, that I must be one of those “good Christians” who like to talk to people on the street. He apologizes for singing a “secular song” (Bill Withers is hardly secular to me, are you kidding? That’s CHURCH!) and I say, oh no, it’s great it’s fine and I tell him that actually, when I first heard his voice from down the block I actually thought he was singing a hymn. Because to my ear, before I realized what actual song he was singing, it sounded like church music.
What I wish I had said was this:
I don’t care if you sing about Jesus or God. I don’t think Jesus gives a sh** if you believe in him or not. I think Jesus wanted to convert us to a way of life, not to a system of belief. I think Jesus cares that I want to help and support you, and that you want to help and support me, and that we want to do that for everybody we meet, with no exceptions.
But I know we don’t have time for that, and I didn’t have time to think it clearly anyway, and so we do our awkward step-and-shuffle with the exchange of $20, which I tell him I hope he will use in some way that contributes to his well-being. He starts telling me about how he has a dream for his life and something about rehab but his eyes are dead — this is a practiced recitation — and I interrupt him. “No, no, you don’t need to explain anything. I’m just telling you what I hope for you, okay? It’s just what I hope for you. That you take care of yourself. Okay?” And I walk on. Good Lord. For a twenty buck hand-out he thinks he owes me a college application essay? Please. No. Your private life is yours.
When I am about a block away, I hear him shout jubilantly in a much different tone than the one he had used with me, “HALLELUJAH!” I don’t know if he’s relieved because he can get food, a fix, bus fare, a six-pack, or what. It’s none of my business. He’s in God’s hands and his own, but he has put his song into me, and as I continue walking down 4th Street I find myself singing,
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…