First I heard the music, and then I saw his face. He was facing the ground, eyes closed, and strumming with the kind of intensity that suggested he wasn't really there. I had my camera in my hand, and it quivered in anticipation at the sight – a musician belting out his soul to a mostly empty parking lot, his worn hat tipped slightly, his hair long and unapologetic.
I had snapped off a couple of photos, but my camera lowered and I found myself drawn in by his voice. He was doing more than just singing; he seemed to be reliving pain from unknown events, events I still wouldn't know about even after we became friends.
I listened a while longer, then mustered up the courage to stride over to him and stop him mid-chorus. He looked up at me suspiciously at first, but I tossed some money into his guitar case and he realized I was not the enemy. I complimented him on his skills, but I may have had an ulterior motive in that moment: I wanted some proper portrait shots of this human I was lucky enough to come across, for fear I might not see him again. He obliged, and after a few uncomfortable moments of him minding the lens, soon he was back in another place and he no longer acknowledged the camera's presence.
I walked the route quite often where he played, and part of me didn't expect to see him again. In fact, after a few weeks, I had almost forgotten about him, save for the images I captured of him (which I still didn't think did him justice).
Then one late afternoon weeks later I saw the hat, and I heard that soulful voice with words that seemed to arrive to my ears before he even sang them. This time, he greeted me by name; I did the same for him – David. I reached into my pocket to see if I had anything monetary to offer, and he turned away, humbly explaining he didn't expect anything from me. Over the next weeks, I started bumping into him regularly, whether he was finishing up a long day of busking, or walking on tattered shoes to a new spot where the management of a business wouldn't try to shoo him away. If only those managers saw how the patrons of the businesses had smiled at David and complimented his music before they walked through the doors.
After a couple of months, David decided I was someone he could trust. I could tell, because he started answering questions that I didn't ask, and sharing tidbits about his daily realities. For example, he told me about the time he was playing music in support of a charity event, but someone swiped the $30 he had raised from his guitar case. But in true David style, he ended his stories on a positive note. "If you're going to rob a busker, you probably need the money more than me," he had joked.
He told me that before being a busker, he was a tradesman and a boilermaker. This is where his story becomes murky, for he never fully explained the time between then and to when he relied on the kindness of strangers to get a day's meal. To be fair though, I didn't really ask.
David always referred to himself as a "true busker," and lamented that he was getting grouped in with the other locals that aggressively asked for money. David never once asked me for money, and always reluctantly accepted it when I offered what small change I had on me. He seemed to be uncomfortable with receiving any charity, and sometimes he'd break into a song mid-conversation when he became uncomfortable – I think it was his way of crawling under the blankets and blocking out the world.
He wasn't homeless like some of the others I saw regularly on the streets. He had a small apartment a few blocks away, but he said the tenant next door was loud and obnoxious, often waking him at all hours of the night. Maybe this is why David's eyes always looked a bit tired – but I always suspected there was more to it than that.
The pinnacle of our relationship was reached when I convinced David to have his portrait taken in the middle of a main street in our neighbourhood. I was feeling particularly ambitious artistically that week, and I had awoken that morning with the crazy idea of photographing David doing what he does best – in traffic.
We met up during that sunny day and I explained to him what I wanted for the photos. He looked around as if to see if he was being tricked; if there was a candid camera crew nearby secretly documenting this whole thing. But after some convincing, and helping him visualize the final result, I finally got him to inch out into the street with me. I captured moments of him lost in song, oblivious to the pickup trucks and bright taxis that approached him from both directions.
The amazing thing is that the traffic slowed and even came to a stop for us to finish our session, and a few times we hit the sidelines to let cars pass before resuming. I felt electric that day – my camera was guiding me, the framing was right, David was smiling and singing as soulfully as ever, and I was smiling too. I couldn't wait to get home to see what we had created together on a bigger screen.
The results were better than I could've hoped for. We had both stepped outside our comfort zones – especially David, who despite singing to any stranger walking by willing to listen, seemed intent on flying under the radar. Standing on a public street while having his portraits taken – one of which would end up in a local paper – seemed unnatural for him, but he embraced the chance.
I sent off the images to the printer and when they arrived in the mail, I found David playing guitar outside not long after. I excitedly showed him the prints and he beamed from ear to ear, almost not believing it was actually himself in the photos. I gave him a bunch and he put them in his guitar case. The next time I saw him, he proudly reported that people had been buying the portraits from him. But I knew this wasn't to my credit – David was merely getting his due as the friendly busker that many people stopped to say hi to, and to let their children listen to his sweet anthems for a few moments before carrying on with their hurried day.
Being friends with David opened him up a bit about his family. He told me his sister was a former model, his niece a successful ballet dancer (I had to search online for this information, but it was more about curiosity than not believing him. It was all true). He also told me that his sons were musically inclined like he is, even more so. He painted a picture of talent and pride in his family, but I was still silently searching for the cracks that David fell through. Was it a single event that drove David to roam the streets? Was it a series of events? Whatever the case, I let David lead the narrative about his past. I didn't want to re-open any scars that were hidden out of sight. Besides, I decided I didn't really need to know, and realized that had he not been out there busking, I probably would have never met him.
Weeks passed, and then months, and the time seemed to be wearing on David. Sometimes he just quietly told me how hungry he was, and I would help him when I could. He was still sunnier than many people on the outside, seemingly thankful for every breath, but I could see the dark clouds gathering behind his eyes. I knew he was tired and he wanted a better place to live, and I started seeing less of him when I took my camera for a walk.
I have vague memories of where I next saw him, but it was during the last gasps of winter, and I can never forget the pain on his face when he told me his sombre news: he had lost a son suddenly. He clutched onto me as he told me, as if I was keeping him from falling headlong into a hole he would never be able to climb out of. I found myself lost for anything I could say or do – money and portraits could do nothing to heal a wound in his heart that was bleeding cold, salty tears from his eyes. I embraced him but still didn't have any words of solace. I walked home alone feeling like I had let him down, like somehow I should have magically thought of a way to bring a smile back to his face. However, I knew this was far beyond what our friendship could fix.
The next time I crossed paths with him, he looked like he was being crushed under an invisible weight. His shoulders were rolled forward as he shuffled along, his head was down, and there were no lyrics coming from his mouth. He told me he had to go away for a little while, that it was all too much. Again, I became a cold statue that offered him only a pat on the back, telling him to "take care," selfishly trying to avoid getting too close for fear of showing my own emotional weakness. I returned home and sat alone for a couple of hours, recounting the things I might've said – that I should've said to a friend in need that I may never see again. As it turns out, I have forgotten what those words were – but it doesn't matter, because I haven't yet had the need to remember them.
There was a glimmer of hope when I saw a photo of David busking dowtown months later on social media. I messaged the photographer to find out if he had spoken to David, to find out what kind of a state David was in, but he had nothing to offer. However, it brightened my day knowing that at the least, David had again picked up a guitar. I trekked downtown a few times over the following weeks in an attempt to reconnect, but every time I saw a similar hat and flowing hair, I was disappointed when the person turned around and was not him.
I hope that when do I see him, if I'm that lucky, it will be like it was when I first chanced upon him in that mostly empty parking lot. I hope his sweet music carries to my ears and that he's in a place where the world can't bring him pain. And I might just watch him from afar, my camera resting at my side.