A homeless man. With a business card. And a webpage.
Here's the backstory of how I met the homeless Internet user. Last summer I used to take long walks in Central Park, pushing my toddler twin girls in their stroller. We'd usually end our journey in front of the Tavern on the Green, because my girls love horses, and that's where the hansom cabs line up to fleece the overfed Germans coming out of the restaurant desirous of a bumpy, overpriced 15-minute ride through a boring part of Manhattan. As the gouge jockeys waited to lure their prey, my girls would point at the horses. I'd pull the stroller up to the beasts and pat their manes, and the girls would laugh with glee as the overworked equines snorted. "Lookie horsies! horsies! Dada horsies!" my daughters would yell with all the glee they could muster.
As we left the horses one day I noticed a heavyset black man sitting on a bench by the park's 67th St. entrance, playing a violin. I said hello to the guy and asked if he could play a few melodies for my babies. The man cradled the violin and let loose. This cat could really play. The kids loved it, so he played another song, and when I put a buck in his violin case he gave each of my girls a small brush on their cheeks and wished us well.
This became a summer ritual. First we'd see the horsies, and then we'd listen to the violinist, who by then had told us that his name was Master John. Now, anyone who calls himself "Master"?well, that strikes me as a tad much. I asked him if his mother named him after a golf tournament. He said he called himself so because he was an expert in yoga, kung fu and music. All I knew was that he could lay down some music that my kids enjoyed, and that was enough for me. On further visits with him, though, I learned that his real name was John Ellington Blair and that he was newly homeless, since his girlfriend had tossed him out of their Bronx apartment. He also complained that his spot in the park wasn't a moneymaker. He claimed that the nannies who stopped there with their charges were cheap.
"Come on, John," I said. "They make about $400 a week doing one of the toughest jobs in the world. A job the kid's parents don't want to do. So maybe you should go easy on them. Play the music for the enjoyment of it."
The way Blair figured it, he was playing his violin in the center of the world's money capital, so he should have been doing better than he was. And as the summer wore on, I got the feeling Blair expected me to up my contribution from the dollar I always gave him. But I wasn't budging. You raise two kids in Manhattan, and week to week a buck is about all you can spare.
In the early fall Blair, having learned that I was a writer, asked me to do a story on him. Like a lot of writers, I'm uncomfortable with being sold. Ask me to write about you and my Irish streak comes out and I don't want to do it. It seemed to me that I'd done enough homeless stories, and that he'd just have to wait.
Then he started asking me for favors. He wanted to know if I'd drive him up to the Bronx so he could get his clothes from his girlfriend's house. I asked where she lived. Since I grew up in and know the Bronx, I told him the 5 train went right to where she lived, and that that and a few boxes would do him fine. I even gave him three bucks to cover his train costs.
As the weather got colder my visits with the kids to Central Park became rare. But still, on some mornings, heading to work, I'd see Blair stretching as he awoke on the steps of a synagogue near my apartment. Blair saw me once and yelled, "Hey, man, when are you doing that story? It's getting cold and I'm getting ready to blow out of New York. So you better get on it."
I'd just keep walking. I believe in the biblical wisdom that the destitute will always be with us. John Blair's story could wait.
Then I didn't see him for a month. During that month, though, I ran into one of his homeless buddies, a guy named Bama. Bama is a story unto himself. In the summer he lives in Central Park, but when it gets cold, it seems, he turns on his Southern charm and manages to convince some wacky West Side matron to house him for the winter. He's the only homeless man I know who looks better in February than he does in August. I asked Bama if Blair was still around. He told me that he was.
Now January came, and that bitter cold snap hit. One frigid morning as I was walking past the synagogue on my way to work, I was surprised to run into John Blair again. Bama had been right. He jumped up and handed me a business card and gave me his spiel again: I should really do his story.
I read the card on the train. It bore the inscription of something called the Park Avenue Artists Support Group and the tagline "We Create Stars." Website and e-mail addresses were included.
Now I was the fish. I took the bait, and he had me. I couldn't get over the fact that this homeless violinist had his own website. On the Web I found a picture of John Ellington Blair. His ebony face was radiant under a Panama hat as he played his violin. He wore a clean white suit and what looked like a gold chain on his wrist. The bio on Blair claimed he was the legendary grandnephew of Duke Ellington and a legendary electronic violinist and soul singer for CBS records. He'd recorded or performed with Roberta Flack, Duke Ellington, Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis, and he'd played the White House during the Kennedy administration.
The site went on to claim that Blair "originated" the vitar, which is an instrument that combines the violin, viola and guitar; that he plays classic soul and smooth jazz and owns the copyright to a composition called "Inner Life Force"; and that he played every Saturday night under the name Jonathan Blair Platinum Vitar at Uncle Henry's, 309-311 Halstead Ave., Harrison, NY.
I called Uncle Henry's and talked to the day manager and asked her if John Blair would be performing that Saturday night.
"No, I'm sorry. We had to let him go. There just wasn't enough interest in him. It was a shame, because I thought his music was wonderful and interesting. He appeared here like five times in the fall of 1999. He claimed he lived in Harrison, but then he said he was moving down to Manhattan. I've lost touch with him."
A few days ago I saw John Blair working a new gig. He was opening the door to a Korean deli, trying to get someone to throw him some change. I said hello.
"Yo, when you doing that article?" he asked.
"You know, John, I think I may do it after all."
He gave me a big smile. A young blonde girl came out of the deli and handed him a corn muffin. I kept walking up Columbus Ave. until I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was the blonde girl. Out of breath, she said: "He wanted me to give you this."
I took a napkin from her. On it was written the name "Master John" and a phone number. I looked down Columbus and nodded at Blair. He gave me a thumbs-up, and the look on his face told me he was never going to give up.