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Davis, California

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Column: Symphony of sages

There are some things in life that take a while to digest. Sometimes things happen too fast. Other times the context of a situation, or the perception of it, changes. Then there are the times when your brain was turned off and it takes concentration to figure out what the hell happened. I had a night recently where all these things occurred at once. It was a week ago and I’m still chewing on it.

No, this wasn’t a night of reflection where I bathed in self-loathing and drowned in memories of my college years wondering what could have been, where I sat abhorring the loss of freedom that awaits me when I receive my diploma, a one-way ticket on a Willy Wonka elevator out of this wonderfully protective snow globe we call UC Davis. So if you’re looking for the traditional I’m-a-Senior-here’s-my-farewell-advice-column, you’re out of luck because 1) I don’t have any, 2) I swore to my editor I’d avoid clichés and 3) this night reads like a story and will leave a more lasting impression than my inevitably immature and futile advice ever could.

This night involves me, a pack of cigarettes, two random dudes, three guitars, a tambourine and a homeless man.

I was drunk and didn’t start taking mental notes until later, so I can’t remember exactly how this story starts. I vaguely recall listening to guys playing guitar outside Woodstock’s, then dipping inside real quick to use the restroom. When I emerged, I decided to sit on the sidewalk and listen awhile.

I made small talk with the two guitar players and I left with one of them to buy a pack of cigarettes. When we returned, the street was deserted and had closed up shop. During our first cigarette, a homeless man stopped by and asked for a smoke.

We invited him to sit down with us and I handed him a cigarette. He leaned over, I lit it for him and the three of us sat, smoked and listened as the fourth provided a soundtrack. When he finished, we offered our praise. Then the homeless man stood up, got out his guitar and tambourine, and put on a show.

He cradled his guitar, placed his boot on the tambourine and began to play. He played with such fervor that I turned to the others and said, “The music’s in him just trying to get out” — an unfortunate attempt at humor but an adequate assessment, nonetheless.

Then he started to make sounds that our poverty-stricken language can’t describe, a combination of mumbling, wailing and prayer. My fellow audience members, feeding off his energy, joined in with musical pleas of their own. And there I was, in the middle of a spontaneous concert, with nothing to do but listen. A man’s unintelligible words, sprinkled over a crystal clear symphony. I began to fill his empty sounds with my own emotions and meaning, lyrics appearing as the air hummed around me. It was beautiful. When it ended, all I could do was take another drag and exhale a “Sonuvabitch.”

Later we moved our stage to a back alley. We sat on crates, we smoked, some of us played, some of us listened. Rarely was my presence verbally acknowledged, but conversation took a backseat that night; took a seat behind existence, behind living. For a few hours we were wading through life undisturbed and I knew that we were all content, satisfied. We were where we were, and that was enough.

Like all things, our time together came to an end. Our chance meeting may never repeat, but sometimes once is plenty. I’ll continue to think about that night but may never understand its significance. There’s a chance I’m trying to trap air here, trying to box in a meaning that either doesn’t exist or can be found anywhere, but I’m OK with that. The idea of its importance will suffice for now.

There’s also a chance you gleaned nothing from this story and you’re still looking for that advice, so I’ll leave you with this: If ever you feel nervous, scared, lonely, regretful or anxious, just stop and take a breath. Stop and look around, recognize your existence, that you are alive, that you made it far enough to feel these things and long enough to remember times when you didn’t. Then take another breath, and be grateful.

At times, NOLAN SHELDON gratefully exists at nosheldon@ucdavis.edu.


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