The man is playing his melodies on his beloved instrument on a crowded London street corner. Brown skinned, white haired and with a bit of stubble, sporting a narrow-brimmed hat and dark clothing – even wearing a jacket in a London summer heatwave – he sits on a black roller-bag suitcase. It holds him up, so I imagine it’s full enough of clothing and other needed items to clothe him for a bit.
But I wonder, is that all he has?
The small paper cup placed in front of him reveals he is not just doing this for fun, although it’s clear the accordion is his cherished companion. The man seems content in the moment but surely he is wondering, “Will anyone notice me?” And, possibly more, “Will I have enough money to eat tonight, or pay for lodging?”
Invisible to Most
Passersby vary in size, ethnicity and backgrounds. Very few acknowledge his presence. He is part of the unseen in this city teeming with activity and purpose. A pregnant woman strides by. Men looking dapper in their business suits. A hijab-clad mother with her three little kids. A group of young Indian men, each with earbuds, presumably in their own worlds. A pack of Chinese tourists.
Young, old, black, white, brown, yellow. They – and I – are part of the ‘haves.’ We are not begging. We have something to do, somewhere to be, somebody to be with. Some may be getting on better than others, but 99 percent of those passersby – including me – would never sit on a street corner playing an instrument with a cup out to collect money.
I wonder about this man’s story.
His is the story of so many cities of this world, where people of all different stripes, shades, cultures and languages, religions, beliefs, values and socioeconomic levels co-mingle. They live in the same world and yet, strangely, have little to do with one another. A part of me feels as if this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
As a budding writer, I am learning how to be more and more attuned to my environment. How to not miss those people who are often on the fringes, who are often unseen. I will confess, it’s not my strongsuit naturally. I’ve had friends who are much better at this skill than I. But I’m trying to make it more of my everyday experience because, I believe, we can actually learn so much from those people on the fringes.
In the hour I’ve been looking out this café window, I’ve seen two passersby drop a few coins into this cup. Not much. He’s pulled out a couple smokes and puffed on them for a bit as he continues to fingerboard the accordian. He even puts the cigarette on the ground so he can play. We’ve caught eyes a couple times, but I’ve mostly looked away, absorbed in my writing. He has no idea.
Truth is, my natural bent is to notice the flashy stuff going on outside. After all, I’m in LONDON! We took some time out of our busy, activity-filled day to rest at a café and write. And this is what came out. Not the flash. But rather, the humble, almost invisible accordian player on the London street corner.
Others are trying to grab people’s attention as well. One woman is passing out tickets for something. Another is protesting Brexit. They are much more devoted to connecting with the passersby than the old man. I wonder how he can make it.
And I become even more curious about him.
Taking a Step into the Unknown
So I venture out. I go and give him a few pounds. I ask him where he’s from and begin to talk with him.
This is what I find: His name is Enrique and he is originally from Peru. He came to London for an opportunity offered in the construction industry through a Peruvian friend over 20 years ago. About a dozen years ago his wife left him for another man.
He has three children, all grown now. One lives here but the others live far away. The one who lives here checks in on him from time to time, but they are mostly estranged. He picks up odd jobs when he can. But he is old, and no one wants to hire him anymore.
What is he to do? He’s past retirement age. He does receive a state pension now. But it’s not enough. He finds a roof in various shelters in the city, moving around often. Sometimes he sleeps outside, under an awning, or a stairwell.
He told me a lot. But then my husband comes, and I get swept away in the bustle of our London travel plans.
Still, I wonder what the future holds for this elderly man. Does he hold on to any hope? Does he wonder what he did wrong? Is this what he had envisioned for himself?
There’s so much I wish I could ask. But I probably will never see him again.
Still, I’m glad I reached out and spoke with him. Communicated even a little bit of care from a complete stranger.
In some way, I feel as if this was something I needed to do while in London.
To connect with someone so very different from myself. Even if just for a few minutes. This made my experience in London something rather unique and memorable.
And I hope it brought a moment of joy to Enrique.
How can we better reach out to those on the edges and teach our kids to do so as well?
Image credit: Stencil
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