In December 2010, my employer furloughed me for three weeks without pay. “The Great Recession’s impacted our bottom line,” my boss explained. Temporarily free from the shackles of my soul-crushing day-job, I hastily organized a three-week, musical tour of coffee houses, open mics and homeless shelters.
Traveling from Wichita, I played open mic nights in Lawrence, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Columbus, Ohio. Most of the performers at these open mics had no interest in listening to other performers; they went home immediately after playing their allotted three songs. Similarly, I didn’t experience much success performing coffee house gigs as an unknown artist in Illinois and Indiana: Annoyed college students, cramming for final exams, scowled at me for breaking the silence, then left en masse, grumbling, “Back to the library.”
Discouraged, I drove on to New York City, where I stayed for a week with The Franciscan Friars of The Renewal—a Catholic religious order founded on the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to God and serving the poor. The previous June, I visited the friars in order to discern if I had a calling to join their ranks as a Franciscan brother. Quickly recognizing that the idea of living a life similar to St. Francis was far more romantic than actually committing to a life of poverty and celibacy, I discerned that I should continue on my musical path as a singer-songwriter. On my second visit in December, I hoped to scout the NYC music scene, and spend a week helping the friars serve the poor. This desire to serve the poor wasn’t altruistic or noble on my part; I learned during my first visit to the South Bronx the previous June that, as a “voluntourist”, I gain more from “helping” the poor than they gain from my efforts—a potent antidepressant, without negative side effects.
I arrived at St. Crispin Friary in the Melrose section of the South Bronx as snowflakes began dancing in the halos of the street lights. The friars welcomed me into the friary to pray vespers with them. After evening prayer, Brother Joshua, a young, caucasian friar from South Africa, approached me. Like all the friars, Brother Joshua wore sandals, a grey habit, and a white cord, tied around his waist as a belt. The three knots tied on the cord represented the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Hanging from this cord were rosary beads, with an oversized crucifix. Like the other friars, his hair was buzzed. But unlike the other friars, Brother Joshua maintained a neat goatee; his patchy facial hair wouldn’t allow him to grow a foot-long, unruly beard like most of the other friars. Because he knew that I’m a singer-songwriter, Brother Joshua asked me to perform a concert for the men housed at the friars’ Padre Pio Shelter, located behind St. Crispin Friary.
Brother Joshua gave the homeless men at the shelter the option of either listening to me perform or watching television—their usual nightly routine. All but one of the men chose to watch television.
Julio (a Hispanic, folk-music-enthusiast from the South Bronx) stood three feet away from me as I began playing. As he swayed to the rhythm of my guitar—eyes closed, face pointed toward the ceiling—his diminutive, emaciated frame reminded me of Giovanni Bellini’s painting of St. Francis in ecstasy. He clapped and cheered in the middle of songs when he enjoyed a particular lyric. After three songs, Julio stopped me. “Jack,” he said, “I’ve gotta tell ya: I have seen a lot, a lot of guitar players in New York City. And you are by far…by far…the seventh best I have ever seen!” After playing another original song, Julio asked if I knew anything by John Denver. When I told him I didn’t, he asked, “Is it okay if I take a quick smoke break?”
I waited for Julio to return from chain-smoking outside, and I was grateful for the enthusiasm with which he listened to my songs. I recognized that he was, by far,
the most attentive audience for whom I’d ever performed.