Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Singer

It is 3:30 in the afternoon and clouds are massing for a summer storm. Three years ago at this time of the year, my area of Virginia was buried under two consecutive snowfalls that crippled the state and federal governments.  Today, it’s 85 degrees, truly unseasonably warm. I am sitting on a bench outside a local Starbucks. There’s a flock of young men and women occupying the tables and chairs. They wear headsets and concentrate on their computer screens; they talk a bit too loudly into their phones.

Next to me, sprawled on the bench, eyes closed and head back, a thin Black woman is in her own world. She has the frayed look of the homeless; there are two empty Seven Eleven coffee cups next to her and three large black plastic bags surround her feet. She is singing softly. At first it is no more than a whispered version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and she appears to know several verses. As the song progresses, so does her voice gain volume and it’s a lovely voice, a full soprano with a quaver at the end, something you might hear on a blues vinyl record from 70 years ago.   

The other people are studiously ignoring her but the presence is tangible; her voice is truly singular, even trained, perhaps. She segues into the theme of the Beverly Hillbillies. She knows all the words to that too, and there’s a certain gusto to the delivery. Her eyes are open now though largely unfocused. She is staring at something in the distance that I assume only she can see. The man at the table next to her folds his computer closed and leaves. At another table, two middle-aged women frankly stare at the singer who is still holding forth about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin' crude
Another computer man moves away. She does the second verse.
Well the first thing you know ol' Jed's a millionaire,
Kinfolk said Jed move away from there
Said Californy is the place you ought to be
So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly.

When Jed’s story has been told three or four times, she goes on to Edelweiss, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic sung by Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, and it amazes me. We all know the tune but how many know the words? I don’t, but she does, and she repeats the last line, Bless my homeland forever, with such heartfelt emotions that the middle-aged women two tables away get dewy-eyed.

And then she’s done. She stands, smiles in my direction. I smile back. She gathers her belongings and trundles away, plastic garbage bags brushing against her skinny legs and I hope the concert will continue at another venue. But the truth is the woman has discovered the secret to invisibility. She has not disturbed anyone seriously enough to warrant an intervention by the authorities but her actions are sufficiently odd as to make her existence to others tenuous at best. I’m not sure whether this is a gift or a curse, but it is certainly worth a song.

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