Sunday in the Park

Whenever I mention the 10-year-plus long distance friendship with a guy on Texas death row (Rogelio Reyes Cannady, who was executed May 19, 2010) and talk about the numerous letters we exchanged, I’m often asked what I wrote to him about. The answer is: everything, in postal cards, long letters and short letters. About my vacation trips, about work, about family, about life in Washington DC. Here is one letter I found a while ago while going through some old files.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Estimado Amigo,

A few notes on my visit to Dupont Circle:

It’s about 3:30. I was lazy all morning and didn’t leave the house until about an hour ago. I get here just in time to listen to the last performance of a Caribbean salsa band, part of a local dance festival. There are lots of people, more than the usual Dupont Circle crowd. As I walk in search of a bench on which to sit, I notice four people dancing to the music. Four white people – two young women, one young guy and a woman in her 60s, at least. If they have any rhythm, they are doing a good job of keeping it hidden. In fact, they are the most pathetic dancers I’ve ever seen. I tell you, I think it ought to be against the law for white folks to dance Latin music. 

Thank God that is the last performance. People are gradually dispersing. Meanwhile, a lone singer, wearing sandals, a flannel shirt over a black undershirt, and a straw cowboy hat decorated with feathers, is setting up shop nearby, hooking up a battery-powered amplifier for his acoustical guitar and microphone. He’s singing mostly folk songs, but also a few other older pop songs. Some I recognize, others I’ve never heard. About the time he starts his performance, a crazy black homeless guy in green camouflage pants, black hooded sweatshirt and a black suit jacket, starts walking around in circles around the fountain, ranting loudly about white folks and capitalism, quoting the Bible and spewing words like “fuck” and “motherfuckers.”  The singer ignores him, for the most part, merely smiling tolerantly each time the ranter parades in front of him. The fact that the singer is ignoring him, and that his audience is growing with each song he sings, appears to irritate the trodder even more, and he starts hurling insults at him, calling him a white boy, in obvious reference to the black singer’s light complexion.  

“It must be hard working with all that anger,” the singer observes in between songs. “I tried that once but I didn’t like it.”

The singer’s white girlfriend sits in front of him, on the fountain steps, an adoring look on her face, and begins clapping as soon as each tune’s last note is sounded, encouraging others to also offer their applause.

It’s a beautiful day: partly cloudy, about 75 degrees. There are more than the usual number of people with cameras, shooting the singer, the ranter and everything and anything that looks halfway exciting. I find myself resenting them because I have left my camera at home. A Bible-toting white couple, trailed by a black man, arrive and slowly make their way along the benches at perimeter of circle, handing out their literature. A couple, a few benches down from me, eat heartily on a large pizza, the slices almost too big for them to handle. Another couple is sharing an ice cream bar. Not everyone is listening to the music, which is pretty good, actually. Some read – books, magazines, newspapers – while others chat and some pretend the singer isn’t there. Some write on spiral notebooks. No laptops today.

A drunken black homeless woman is now dancing in front of the singer, mouthing the lyrics, or attempting to. Her companions, two young scruffy men sitting on the steps next to the singer’s girlfriend, egg her on. When the song is over, she joins them on the steps and they begin a series of very loud conversations. The woman says something that seems to embarrass her. She covers her face with her hands, delighting her companions, both white. They all look at the singer for a reaction.

“It must have been dirty,” he finally says. “If she’s that dark and she’s blushing, it must have been real dirty.” 

This only encourages the woman more. When the singer sings the lyrics, “Give me the people that can free my soul. I wanna get lost in your rock ‘n roll,” she sings back, “Give me the people that can free my soul. I wanna get lost in your fucking roll.” Again, her companions are greatly amused. The two may not be as drunk as she is, but they certainly are high and giddy.

By this time the ranter has tired of walking around the fountain, so he positions himself about a hundred feet from the singer and continues his tirade from there. But soon he tires of that also and wanders off, muttering non-stop. Meanwhile, passers-by continue to parade in front of the singer. There’s an Indian, or Pakistani, guy in a muted yellow turtleneck, walking regally and holding a pipe in one hand and cradling book by Norm Chomsky under the other arm. An older white woman with purple streaks in her gray hair rides by on a motorized chair. Two brown-skinned kids, a boy and girl of about 5 and 6, trail behind her, with a perplexed look on their faces. A middle-aged woman, obviously a tourist, squats in front of the performer to takes his picture, then moves a bit to take another one from a different angle. And another one. Some stop to listen for a few seconds before moving on, others listen as they walk. Some ignore the whole scene. Some drop money in the singer’s open guitar case; most ignore it.

One of the two homeless young guys with the drunken black woman approaches the singer and whispers in his ear. The singer nods and the homeless guy scurries back to his place.

“This song is for Kevin and Tim,” the singer announces. “Happy anniversary.” 

Kevin – or Tim? – smiles broadly and proudly and places his arm around his companion, who blushes a bit. As the song progresses, they hold hands and take turn caressing each other’s faces. The black woman is also overtaken by the emotion of the moment and reaches out to take one of Tim’s – or is it Kevin’s? – hand. He holds it only for a few seconds before dropping it so he can concentrate on his partner. As the song comes to an end, they face each other and kiss, the beaks of their gimme caps colliding briefly, making the kiss an awkward one. It’s a touching scene, nevertheless. Somehow, I tend to imagine that homeless people don’t have relationships, but here are these two kids, acting as if they are the only two people sitting on those steps by the fountain, and that the entire world, not just the song, is theirs. They have each other and that’s all that seems to matter.

Their song over, the two homeless guys get up and walk away, leaving the black woman alone. She appears lonesome as she sits there, uncharacteristically quiet. Another homeless guy sits next to her and tries to engage her in conversation but she’s not interested. She gets up and walks away instead and finds a place a bit further down, next to couple with dachshund on a chain. She reaches out to pet the dog but, frightened, it barks loudly at her, causing its owner to pick it up and console it. Now the black woman looks even lonelier. She hangs around a few more minutes, then moves away, carrying her belongings in brown grocery store bag, a beige plastic purse and black fake leather tote bag. She once again stands next to the singer and pretends to play the guitar and sing, but it is obvious that her heart isn’t in it. 

As the performer begins his next number, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs,” she stops and stands still for a few seconds. She smiles at him, waves halfheartedly and walks away.

The singer continues to sing, his lips so close to the microphone that he appears to be licking it. He smiles and nods at her and sings,

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. 

None but ourselves can free our minds

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

In the distance, a thunderstorm rumbles.

Un fuerte abrazo,

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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1 Response to Sunday in the Park

  1. dedefox says:

    Cannady must have appreciated these so much–a snapshot of life on the outside.

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