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Oh That Magic Feeling

March 11, 2013

Years ago I was a street singer. It was more for political/philosophical reasons that simply to earn a living. My friend Mark and I just hitchhiked around the country playing folk songs on banjo (Mark) and dulcimer (me). Ostensibly this was to reach that year’s Rainbow Gathering, but that was just a label slapped on to make it look like we had some sort of direction.

Once we were in Sparks, Nevada, singing in front of a Safeway. A kid was walking by with his mom. He couldn’t take his eyes off us. You could see he wanted to stop & listen. We couldn’t have been more attractive to a little kid than if we had been a couple of dogs playing live music (we sort of were). His mom kept her hand locked on his head while they were walking by. Like a vise grip, forcing him to look straight ahead & not at us. I remember thinking That Poor Woman. I wondered, while she was steering her kid away from us, “What happened to her that she perceives a couple of hippies singing Wildwood Flower to be such a threat?”  Of course I felt sorry for the kid, but as I saw it at the time, he was being bullied  (by his mom) and because I was a practicing Quaker back then, I felt that my sympathy belonged with the perp. The kid was definitely a victim, but the mom, as the bully, needed on some spiritual level to have the reasons for her bullying acknowledged, because she had no comfort in victim-hood (more on this in Review of Inheritance), and ultimately she was going to suffer the loss of her kid’s love because of it. As an aside, please note that my acknowledgment of the reasons for her, or any perp’s, perp-hood is emotional and metaphysical but does not extend to legal. I think it’s okay to say, for example, “That rapist got a really raw deal. Now fry the maggot.”

But I digress.

We usually made enough money to buy bread & cheese & to have enough left over for donuts & coffee in the morning & once in awhile a room in a downtown hotel. “Oh That Magic Feeling, Nowhere to Go” used to run through my mind all the time. Sing, then just sit around eating bread & cheese & drinking a beer. Not having to set an alarm clock. The whole thing, notwithstanding the challenges of living on the road, was delicious.

Once on an on-ramp on the way into Denver a guy on his way to work flipped me off with such violence, with such a look of malice on his face & in his eyes, I felt like I’d been shot at point-blank range. I chalked it up to his being on the way to work at some shitty job in a shitty car and feeling trapped on every imaginable level in a shitty life, which made me both the symbol of his cage and the person in himself that he was trying to kill for trapping him, although at 20, I didn’t realize any of that at the time. I just thought he was just an asshole. Which he was. And after all those Jungian explanations of that guy to myself, that’s probably the best one, for all kinds of reasons.

I did that a lot for a long time: Provided myself with an explanation of other people’s negative behavior as a way to “understand” it. I can’t tell you how fucked up that is. I mean, it looks great on the surface. Makes me this “understanding” person who, because of that, can forgive everyone for any infraction. But you know, all it is is veiled masochism. It’s this way of substituting “understanding” (which I provide myself) for whatever it is I’m not getting from the other person (that I should be getting) or trying to ease the pain of what I’m getting from the other person (that I shouldn’t be). Or who knows, maybe it just makes me someone who can almost instantaneously find a noble-looking reason to sidestep responsibility. Slippery. I guess it’s a talent that’s like a gun. Protective in the right hands, dangerous in the wrong ones.

It’s almost a reflex. I did it for years with someone I was in love with but who just didn’t love me. This person was quite broken (see, there she goes again). But really, because of his brokenness he was never going to be able to respond to me or (I now see 30 years later) to anyone, and ultimately he was completely safe for me. But during that entire time I provided myself with little explanations–he can’t do this because of his isolation, he can’t do that because he was an orphan, he does this because he didn’t get adopted for a long time, yadda yadda–as a way to (I guess) make myself feel better about what I wasn’t getting. Reaching into my pocket & coming up with a couple of stale saltines at the Thanksgiving table of which I could have partaken by just moving on, but couldn’t.

But back to street singing. We made money but weren’t great show-people. I remember being fascinated by the number of people who looked like they wanted to stop & throw some money in the case but wouldn’t. We had endless conversations about this. The fear of being the first–Mark used to start every session with some paper money in the case so people wouldn’t have to be afraid of being the only one to like us enough to pay. We contemplated how rich we’d be if every single person who walked by threw in a penny but how most people would feel that “wasn’t enough” and so wouldn’t throw in anything at all. We thought about how many people avoided eye contact, which for a long time I thought was their attempt to make us invisible. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was doing a documentary-style portrait series of some street people living on Santa Monica Mall that one of them told me during a conversation that it wasn’t he those people were trying to make invisible, it was themselves. That made total sense.

I thought of all this while writing the post “Is there anything I can do to help?” I guess I was trying to figure out why so few of my friends had offered to help me when I needed it. When I’ve offered to help so many people in so many ways so much of the time. Not that that makes me Mother Theresa. This is easy, normal behavior. It’s natural, it’s What You Do. You see someone in need and you say “Can I help.” I can’t fathom the person who knew, for example, that the only thing keeping me off food stamps was pride rather than lack of eligibility and who not only did not offer to help me but who made a point of giving me a blow-by-blow of everything they had for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the same guy from whom unsolicited advice rains down like manna every time you talk to him, but when actual help was required, the kind that would have had, I don’t know, some kind of effort-related price tag, that well suddenly ran dry. My next thought was to wonder if I was doing my old trick of trying to figure out “Why they did it” as a substitute for “That they did it” and to stave off for as long as possible the pain of betrayal.

So that guy who flipped me off on the on-ramp? What an asshole.


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