Our grandchildren never cease to amaze us.
“Poppa. We’re volunteering next Friday night to provide meals for homeless women. Why don’t you and Nana come, too? She could help in the kitchen. Maybe you could play some music!”
This, coming from our then 13-year-old granddaughter. Her 10-year-old brother, our grandson, would also be helping out.
“Sure. That sounds good! Gimme the details,” I answered.
I emailed the woman at the church that was sponsoring this event. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was an ongoing program to rescue homeless women from the streets, especially at holiday time. And more especially in cold weather. A city-wide network of churches alternated weeks, offering their gymnasiums for sleeping, complete with cot beds and bathrooms. And, their kitchens for cooking the meals that would be served by kids like our grandchildren. This concept blew me away. Wonderful for the women who needed the help. Just as great for young kids learning to help others unselfishly. Not to mention their Moms, who would spend their day gathering the food and cooking the meals. The woman emailed me right back.
“Great idea, Jeff! We’ve never had music before, but I think it would provide a much needed morale boost. Especially at this time of year. Can you start playing at about 7 o’clock? That’s when we’ll be serving dinner. And can you play some Christmas music, too?”
“Absolutely,” I messaged back. “I’ll be there a half-hour early to set up. See you then.”
This would be my first performance for the benefit of homeless people. As I’ve mentioned to you before, a little nervousness always invades a musician’s mind prior to show time. We all have visions of homeless people, especially homeless women. You know. Bag ladies, they’re often called. Mentally ill? Dangerous? The dregs of society? The closer the event, the more I worried. Especially about the youngsters who would be serving the meals. At such a young age, were they ready for what they might face? Were they up to the challenge of treating others as they themselves would want to be treated? After all, isn’t that what they’re taught? At least, in the classroom. But what about in real life?
Cass and the grandkids, together with the other volunteers, spent the day in the church kitchen preparing meals. I had it easy, arriving at 6:30 to set up. There were dining tables and beds for about 75 assembled in the church gymnasium. And, of course, a long buffet table. Loaded, by then, with more food than you can imagine. All cooked, ready to serve. The guests arrived around five minutes before seven, busily unpacking their backpacks and claiming their cots. They were visibly nervous. Not sure what to do next. So, at precisely 7 o’clock, sharp, I started playing. The women took that as their cue to line up at the buffet tables. And as I performed, I looked at them, looking at me. Smiles. Conversation. Easing of tension. And then it hit me, like a ton of bricks. They looked . . . well . . . just like my wife. Or my daughter. No different. All colors. All ages. Some looked older. Some, more tired. Others looked like your favorite high school teacher. You know, the one you can never forget for caring about you?
Midway through the meal, the kids came out from the kitchen to clear the tables. I confess, as I tell you this story right now, I’m wiping a tear or two from my eyes. No fear. No hesitation. They walked right up to each table. Smiled. Engaged the women in conversation. Before I even realized it, the kids were sitting at the table with the ladies. Taking selfies. Holding their hands. Helping them. Being helped by their attention, in return. I have never been so proud of my grandchildren. By 7:30, dinner was done. I thought the ladies would simply get up from their seats and retreat to their cot beds and conversations. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They stayed right where they were. Listening to my music. Laughing at my corny jokes. To the chagrin of my grandchildren. Singing along with the Christmas songs. Yes, there were some tears. For lost families. Lost jobs. Lost opportunities. Lost youth.
I have another confession make, if I may. And I admit this to anyone who asks, “why do you do this?”
“I’m selfish,” I always answer. “I get more pleasure from these performances than my audiences ever could.”
Yes, these are the best audiences any musician could wish for. They listen. They appreciate. They perk up. They smile. And laugh. And cry. And they applaud, too. More often than not, standing as they clap their hands enthusiastically. Unafraid to let you know they appreciate you. At the end of the hour, one homeless woman approached me while I was packing up my gear. She introduced herself. Shook my hand. Stunningly beautiful young African-American woman, no more than 30 years old. She, an aspiring Musician. Talking about her years attending college. Got her degree. Well spoken. Literate. Eager to communicate.
“You know, I’m as surprised by my present circumstance as anyone. I never expected, or wanted to be homeless. But like so many other women here, I faced a hurdle I couldn’t jump over. So, here I am. I know I’ll get over it. I know I’ll return to society, where I belong. But in the meantime, this is an important resting point. A time and place to regain my strength. And my confidence. And your being here, sharing your music, proves to me that there are people who care. I won’t let them down. Or you. I promise.”