“Make a wish, any wish at all. What would you wish for?” Of course the old man didn’t respond because I hadn’t really spoken to him...hadn’t spoken at all. But that’s what I wanted to ask him as I stood and watched him. Why did he do this? What was he looking for? What was the dream at the end of all his nights here?
I figured him to be Chinese...maybe Korean. Pulled back into a ponytail, his thin, salt-and-pepper hair hung to the middle of his slumped back. His shoulders barely moved and his crinkled eyes locked on something far beyond the farthest end of the street as he beat out the monotonous rhythm on the miniature drum set that looked like a child’s toy. Tharump ba bump bump, tharump ba bump bump, tharump ba bump bump badoom ba bump bump. His drumming was self-accompaniment to tonally flat vocalizations of 50s and 60s pop hits. The beat changed but little as he began each new song in a voice more devoid of talent and inspiration than his drumming.
I adjusted my stance and looked up and down the promenade. Even at midnight, shoppers and browsers thronged, providing ever-shifting waves of audiences for the street performers who displayed their talents in between the carts and racks of the vendors of trinkets, crafts and food. Enough people crowded around most of the shows that those at the back had to crane their necks and stand on their toes to see the act, but not so for the drummer.
For twenty minutes, as I sipped my coffee, I’d been his only spectator other than passersby who would whisper among themselves, laugh and move on. He’d sung five songs, the breaks between them mere seconds. Any time day or night, weekday or weekend for the past year that I’d come here to browse, shop and people watch, he was here. On no occasion I could recall had he ever been still at his drums or not singing. Never were there more than a dozen people watching him play and usually fewer, if any. The coffee can a few feet from his base drum, put there to receive tips, seldom contained more than pocket change, occasionally a lonely dollar bill.
I’d bet a week’s salary that anyone who played as much as he, day in and day out for hours on end, would undoubtedly and eventually show some improvement, yet my ears knew that in his case I’d lose my wager. If I had such an apparent lack of talent and ability for a thing, I’d have given up quickly. Why didn’t he? No doubt there’s virtue in persistence, but his acceptance of reality seemed to be lacking. He sucked.
My curiosity finally overriding my sense of propriety, I stepped closer to him as he ended a song with a cymbal crash. I held up my hand to keep him from launching into another musical tragedy.
“Excuse me, sir, may I speak with you for a moment?”
He lowered his bony hands and the aged, splintered drumsticks into his lap, and merely nodded.
“I’ve seen you play many times, and I’m impressed with how hard you work at it.”
That’s not really what I wanted to say, but I’m not completely tactless.
Again, he nodded once.
“Well, I was just wondering where you hope to take your...uh...musical career? If you could make a wish, any wish at all, what would it be?”
Before the old man could answer, a small child of about five or six with black, straight hair and dark, almond eyes scampered between him and his drums and climbed onto his lap. “Can we go now, Grandpa? Can we go eat? Do we have enough?”
The drummer lifted the child from his lap and set him down gently but firmly next to him, and put an index finger to his lips as he patted the child on the head. He turned back to me and fixed his eyes on mine. With no emotion and in a deep, calm voice he said, “I’d wish you would put a dollar in my can.”
I was inspired to write this story by my many, many visits to 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when I still lived in Southern California. It was one of my favorite places to hang out and people-watch, especially on hot summer nights. Since relocating to California's Central Coast, it's one of the very few things I miss about Southern California.