Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Man on State Street

I can’t stop thinking about him, this man I saw on State Street. I almost didn’t notice him as I hurried by with envelope in hand, anxious to get to the post office to mail my request for a tax extension by tax day deadline.

He was Asian like me, older than me, sitting on the corner, wearing a blue windbreaker, holding the neck of an instrument - black and worn - with just a few strings. It looked like a violin (an instrument I own and once played regularly) without its typical wooden body or what’s technically called a bout. His ghost-like eyes peered out at passersby, but I don’t know if he saw any of us, as he held his bow moving it wearily back and forth across the strings.

The glorious sound of what sounded like an ancient lullaby beckoned me, and I paused momentarily. I looked down at a worn duffle bag on the ground where the music seemed to be emanating. I couldn’t tell if the bag was hiding a boom box or an amp. Was he really playing or was he faking it and why did I care? I suddenly felt embarrassed for him, and I quickly walked on, away from this stranger (or this brother) of mine who might be as old as my father if my father were still alive.

The other night over pate and wine, I talked with a friend about being intentional about shaping the culture we want, what it means to contend with an Asian American identity, and how writers of color might assert themselves more aggressively in the literary cultural scene. He offered his thoughts on a synthesis of politics and culture that’s been lost in the current state of Asian America. I agreed that a reclaiming of a rich radical tradition among Asian Americans was necessary. This conversation, and the possibilities it alluded to, excited me.

But where does this man, who I noticed only fleetingly, who plays or pretends to play a stringed instrument on State Street fit in? What's his story and what are his dreams? I hope I see him again. I hope that I'll stop to listen to him. And even though talking to strangers can be hard for me -- I hate to admit it because I organize public conversations for a living -- maybe, I'll ask him his name and have a conversation with him.