There is a man I keep in my phone whom I can never call.
And while I know he will never pick up, I can’t erase his number. It makes me smile to see his name. And reminds me of the adventures awaiting only a breath away when you say yes.
I had just returned from a retreat. The one where I sat in the water. I had managed to bring this magic back through a muggy airport, three connecting flights and now stood on a street filled with taxis and screaming drills. I glided across the street to get a slice of New York’s finest. Cheese with extra parmesan.
I started my way back across the street, toward my 71st St. hole in the wall I treasured.
“Hey miss, can you help me up the curb?”
His wheelchair was stuck on the lip of the sidewalk.
I responded automatically and grabbed the handles of his chair to push.
I was about to walk away, when his tone stopped me. “What are you?” he asked me.
“What’s your name kid?” he asked.
And that was the beginning.
John Ellington Blair was a homeless man who lived on the corner of 71st and Broadway and went by the name Master John. A wheelchair filled with musical instruments and knick knacks, he was a bit of a local character. A big black garbage bag wrapped around one of his legs. “Keeps the moisture off the cast when I sleep he explained.” He swore he could make me a star. After two minutes of knowing me he was utterly convinced.
“Wow, a homeless agent” I thought to myself. “I’m really moving up!”
But I gave him my cell phone number when I left. No, I don’t know why. He intrigued me? He was funny? Perhaps it wasn’t so smart. Beause boy did he call.
He called and wanted to come over for dinner. I met him on the bench with some homemade veggie juice and soup with lentils and rice. He told me about his love affair with Roberta Flack, and how he’d played with all the jazz greats and invented this treasured instrument the Vitar.
He called and wanted to take a bath in my bathtub. I met him at the park with five gallons of hot water, some toe nail clippers, towels, lotion and soap. He told me how he’d come to live on the corner of my block only a few months ago when his girlfriend had thrown him out of the house for abuse of prescription drugs and abuse of her. I washed his feet and I listened.
He called and desperately needed a singer for a Mother’s Day gig he had booked at the local senior center. I met him at Sunset Retirement and was mortified to find out we were crashing the gig of a sweet piano player named Norman. I insisted we leave, while John Blair insisted harder I sing with the piano player and see if I could work in some solos for him on his Vitar. An awkward hour later we had all the seniors on the floor dancing and I the pianist had booked me to sing at another gig with him the following week.
The Vitar was a horror of a sound. But it was the first time I had sung in New York City, and I was aglow. He was audacious and funny, and made me far braver than I had ever dared to be. I couldn’t care less if his stories were made up. It had been a fabulous day.
He called and wanted me to run away to Florida with him. He wanted a way off the streets before winter.
“That’s never gonna happen” I told him firmly, but I agreed to meet him at the Veteran’s Hospital to see if there was a way he could get a hospital bed. He needed surgery on his hip. His thinking was if he could time it with the storms he could miss the first half of winter while he came up with a plan.
They checked him in and gave him a bed. He showed me the hospital and introduced me to his friends. While filling out paperwork he asked if I’d be the executor of his will. He needed one to be admitted. “It’s a formality. I have to put someone.” I counted the days backwards an realized I had only known him for 2.5 weeks. “Surely there is someone better suited…” my sentence trailed off.
He gave me his PO box key and asked if I’d pick up his mail when I visited him next.
Two nights later I was working a double shift and my phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I had told him I was at work. I would call in the morning. At midnight I walked past the park and listened to my messages.
“I think Roberta can come tomorrow. I need you to come tomorrow.” Beep
“You gotta call me. I need my mail. You’ve gotta come bring me my mail.” Beep.
“Call me kid. John Blair here. Please can you call?” Beep.
It was getting a bit intense. I started to wonder if I had crossed the line with this man who lived on the streets with a known history of abuse. I had already told him I couldn’t make it on Sunday. I had a date with some girlfriends for brunch and then a mani/pedi in the afternoon. Maybe I could get down there after, but I was going to have to start setting some boundaries. Five messages in one shift was really not OK.
I had just picked out my fuchsia nail polish and had it applied to my second finger when my phone rang.
“Is this Blossom Benedict?” the sterile male voice on the other end asked me. “You are John Blair’s executor. I’m calling to tell you John Blair died last night.”
I should have answered the phone. He knew. And I didn’t answer the phone.
If the story ended there, it would have been a magical and melancholy and memorable chapter in my life.
But of course the story did not end there. He had entrusted me with his possession, with his funeral, with his PO box key and his violins, and with the myth that there was money somewhere and people who cared. I was his contact. I was in charge.
I picked up his possessions at the hospital and rummaged through the pockets. Nothing. I talked to a few vets in hopes they might know something. Sorry. I went to the PO box and prayed there would be mail. Empty.
I wracked my brain. He’d had a girlfriend! I didn’t know where she lived. He had violins at a synagogue? There were a thousand in the city. His possessions he had left with a lawyer. A nameless lawyer?!
I had seen him check his email on gmail once at the VA hospital. He was writing to someone. Was it family? Was it spam? I walked to the computer and bumped on the keys. If I was his email, what would I be?
User name: email@example.com I typed, playing games with myself.
Password: v-i-t-a-r. And with a smack, I hit enter.
For with the stroke of a key and a random worthless guess… Gmail opened, and with it, opened up; the life of John Blair.
I honestly don’t know how to tell this next part of the story. Do I include all the dialogue and looks and surprise? Do I tell you the conversation with the sobbing girlfriend I found after buzzing on door after door, or tell you only that I found her, and sat patiently for two hours while I told her she wasn’t wrong?
Do I show you the letter I wrote to Roberta Flack and marched to the door of the Dakota.
You don’t know me. I am a friend of a man named John Blair. He says he knew you. I have no idea if this is true or if you even live in New York, but I wanted to let you know that John Blair died the other night and if you knew him I am very sorry.
If you have any questions you can call me at (949) 533-7170. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sorry to have bothered you.
I walked my letter to The Dakota and asked the doorman if Roberta Flack lived in the building. He wouldn’t say.
Well if she does live here, will you give her this letter? It’s urgent.” I thrust the letter into his hands imploringly.
“Will that be all ma’am?” The doorman asked me.
She was real and she called.
Then I found a lawyer who was holding his CDs who knew the rabbi who was holing his violins. The rabbi knew that his girlfriend’s name had been Geraldine, and that’s how I found her by buzzing the all the initial G’s in the building the lawyer had pointed at.
Geraldine knew his sister Joyce who lived in Michigan and was a wreck. With each person, each email, each note, the story came together.
His stories had been real. And on and on and on and on they went.
The funeral service was at the VA Hospital. Roberta handled the details. They had been lovers back when they were kids.
I sat in the last pew, surrounded by faces I had found and pulled together from a maze. The service was short; A story from his sister, a prayer followed by a hymn.
“The first time ever I saw… his face…” Roberta’s voice was raw and open as tears streamed down her cheeks and the cheeks of the attendees paying respect to John that day as she sang. It was the concert of a lifetime, only without the crowds or the cheer.
And that was it.
I packed up his CDs, all except one, and sent them home with his sister. I wished I hadn’t. He would have wanted me to have them. But I didn’t want anyone to think I was taking anything that didn’t belong to me. And they were only CDs.
I kept a small vial of mandarin oil he’d used to soften the cracks on his street wise hands. I hated the smell but wouldn’t throw it away.
I closed his gmail account and PO box and turned in the key. We never found his money.
And that was it. That was the story of John Blair.
In the end, all I really had was that number. The number I could never call.