The old man on the street corner was asking for money from people who were holiday shopping. Except he wasn’t begging. He was singing songs and dancing.
There is a big difference between panhandling and entertaining.
He was dressed in a red velvet coat and Santa cap. He had skin the color of rich mahogany, and he was as lean as a Q-tip.
In his aged eyes you could tell he’d been around. But in his voice he was Ron Isley.
A few of us holiday shoppers gathered around to watch his one-man show. There we were, carrying large shopping bags from upscale stores, dressed in our nice suburban clothes, drinking designer coffees in eco-friendly paper cups.
And this man had holes in his shoes.
But it was hard not to smile while watching him spin around, dancing like the Godfather of Soul, singing Christmas carols at the top of his voice to people on the street.
He also had a knack for inventing lyrics to songs for which he didn’t know the words.
The following are actual substitute lyrics he composed, on the spot, to “Joy to the World.”
“Joy to the world,
“Joy, joy, joy,
“Joy… Joy… Joy…!”
It wasn’t exactly Gershwin, but it worked.
I stood in the back of the crowd with others and gladly tossed money into his bucket between each burst of our applause.
“This guy’s good,” said one lady.
“He really is,” said a man.
“I wish I could dance like that.”
“How is his groin still intact?”
Then the man began taking song requests. He smiled at us, and I could see that he was missing several teeth. His face was covered in white stubble, and he was out of breath from exertion. But that smile was one-hundred watt.
A young woman in the crowd said, “Do you know ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’?”
“You better know I do,” he said.
He sang the with conviction, and he even played a tambourine. I half expected him to finish by doing the splits.
Again we applauded. Again we threw cash in the bucket. I was about to move along and continue holiday shopping until I overheard a young woman ask:
“Can you sing ‘Oh Happy Day’?”
My shopping can wait, I thought.
The man started his rendition by clapping out a rhythm. Then he told us he needed our participation. The next thing I knew, we were all joining him, clapping on two and four.
“You gotta hep me, now!” he kept saying. “You gotta hep me sing!”
And hep him we did.
“Oh happy day!” he sang.
Then he pointed to us.
“Oh happy day!” we croaked.
After a few choruses, the crowd started to peter out because we are uptight Americans who are about as adept at showing emotion as domesticated iguanas. But a few in the crowd really got into the music.
And while he sang, I started thinking about what kind of year we’ve all had. You and me. I thought of all the troubles and heartaches my friends and family have been going through.
I found myself thinking of all the letters I receive from people who are enduring hard times this Christmas.
The young man with brain cancer who emailed me yesterday and said he doesn’t know if he’ll make it through the year.
The little girl who wrote me, whose mother just passed away in an auto accident last week.
I thought about the man who just adopted a non-verbal foster child who flinches whenever his foster dad tries to hug him.
I thought about the young woman who just buried her infant.
Soon, I felt hot tears fill my eyes as this little man danced around in public, singing “Oh Happy Day.”
Here was a man who likely has less material possessions than anyone in his audience, and yet he’s singing about happiness.
I looked around the small crowd. There wasn’t a frown in the bunch. And it was all because of him.
The truth is, I don’t know this singing man. I don’t know whether he will go home to luxury or squalor tonight. I don’t know what troubles he might suffer, nor what struggles he might face this Christmas season. But I know one thing. Today he gave me a gift.
When he finished singing, we all cheered and threw our bills into the bucket. A few of us shook his hand. One of us hugged him. And I found myself still humming when I got to my car.
Because he was right. It was a happy day.