It was the fourth of March when I saw him play his last. I should remember: it was my birthday then. I found him in one corner of the subway station where I took the train to school (apparently, it was raining again). He was humming to himself while writing something on a piece of paper, his guitar pressed to his chest. I brought him coffee and asked if he could play one song for me. He thanked me with his good-natured smiled, folded his legs beneath him and sang his heart out. Since then, I never saw him again. Maybe he died. Maybe he stopped playing altogether. Maybe he moved someplace else to play, with a different crowd to listen. After that day, he simply disappeared, just like smoke, and we never saw him again.
He was known only as the Guitar Man. He played his own music with his instrument, which he called Keito, and with his own songs, most of which were original compositions. Mostly, he played at the piazza if it was a fine day. When the cops would call him in because he was drawing a crowd too many, or when the weather wasn't very nice, he'd simply find another place to play. Whether it was inside a commuter train or a subway, I don't think he particularly cared. He played for music's sake, and that's what was important to him.
Nobody knew his real name. Each time someone would ask, he'll simply tuck a stray lock of his overgrown hair, crinkle his crooked nose and smile at the crowd serenely before he strummed his strings. Then, he'd sing. I liked it best when he sang.
I was nineteen then, a college student who paid my dues, without so much to live on. I was being educated at a state university funded by the government and not-for-profit organizations, so my tuition was free, but I had to pay for dorm rent, books and allowance. My father left when I was very young, and my mother, who was sick until I finished high school, died on her sleep a year ago. I was the only child, and right at that point in my life, I was very, very lonely. I lived at a place so far away from home and I was left to fend for myself.
The first time I met Guitar Man, I was running errands from my boss on a bookshop I worked part-time in. He had his eyes closed, singing a song that was vaguely familiar to me (but which I was certain was from a band back in the 70's-mom had a wide range of vinyl collections of Bread, The Beatles, whatever-is). I stopped awhile and pushed my way through the crowd to get a better look of the man. He had a hipster-looking hair that was tied back in a pony tail, overgrown beard, and a crooked nose that looked like something he got from a fight many years ago, a serene smile on his lips. It calmed me by just looking at him. He was neat, to say the least, and he was highly unlikely a homeless person in the area. Maybe he had a home and just happened to love to play at public places such as this. There were ears to listen and an audience to please.
For a tone-deaf like me, I couldn't register the tones nor appreciate the beauty of the music. It has always been a struggle for me since I was a kid, not being able to appreciate music like other kids did. I heard about Beethoven and Back and Schubert, but I never heard even one of their masterpieces. If it were a song, it was lightly tolerable because I could get past the lyrics. Even so, I wanted to hear how beautiful music was.
Since then, I'd be ready for school an hour early just so I could listen to his songs a bit more. Sometimes, he played older songs that I wasn't familiar with; sometimes he played his own songs. Sometimes, he simply strummed his guitar and hummed. I asked him once which bands were his favorite and he said it was The Beatles. Simply put, he said, they were once in a lifetime. "You can't replace such band like that. Heard any of their songs?"
"Not exactly," I said, uncertain if I should confide that my interest in music was close to naught before I met Guitar Man.
"Why not?" he asked, his brows furrowing a little. We were alone. He had just finished playing four songs. When he put his guitar back to its canvas case, the crowd began to thin and I stepped inside his bubble and made myself a new friend. He was twenty-four, I learned, and he lived in the outskirts of town and travelled here before dawn everyday just to play. I asked him then, why he had such passion for music when he was not even paid for it and he replied, " Why, indeed?" The reason has been buried down so deep within that it has become a part of him.
"Was there ever a time when nobody listened?" My curiosity was begetting me.
"There was. Once, when I was in a big town, like New York, I was in the subway for hours and played until I was very tired and hungry, and nobody listened. The place was bustling with people, but nobody paused to listen."
I guess sometimes, the world is too busy minding its own business to bother to listen to that small voice inside them that speaks of beauty and inner peace. If we only bothered to pause awhile and listen, maybe we wouldn't be manic all day and our schedules wouldn't be as jammed. I understood where he was getting at.
"You're not a bad musician, I suppose."
"You're not sure?"
I shrugged at this and decided once and for all to tell him the truth. "I've never heard the music you played, not once."
A look of confusion stretched across his face but only for a split-second. Then, he nodded severely as if he understood perfectly what I meant. After that, he asked for a pen and a paper and wrote down something. He gave it back to me when he finished. And on the paper was an address. I knew where that was, since it was very close to the bookshop where I worked. He said, "Meet me in this place tomorrow. Since it's a weekend, I assume you're free. They have a rusty old turntable there but as I know, it's still in working condition. I'll bring records tomorrow."
I wasn't entirely sure what he meant or what were his plans but the next day, I went to the place anyway. We met by the door and he ushered me in. It was a small antique shop and apparently, he was familiar with the owner, an old man in his late seventies with a warm grandfather smile that made me somewhat nostalgic of my own. Guitar Man took my arm and led me to where a large phonograph was placed atop an equally old-looking table. He placed all the records he's brought beside the turntable and pulled out one from the pile. He took off the jacket, placed the vinyl on the player and soon, music wafted inside the room. For me, it was all monotonous, but I could understand the lyrics somehow.
"This is Norwegian Wood," he explained to me as he took my arm and drew me close. "Close your eyes. Focus. Feel the vibrations of the sound in the air." I did as told. "And listen."
"Do you hear anything?" he asked after a minute or two before the song ended.
"I think so," I said. "It was 'twuu twuu' like static. Is that normal?"
He chuckled at this, pulled the needle off and put on another record. It was Octopus' Garden, he said.
"A bit. This is a funny song."
He smiled at this and stuck his thumb out at me. "Enough for today. Same time tomorrow," he said. "I'll get you to listen to one of my EPs."
This went on for about three weeks until my ears were able to register bits of the music. He was patient with me, and once I was able to recite a full verse with its proper tones, do-re-mi, lecture was over and our class was done. After the songs, we moved on to Beethoven and Bach and Schubert, and though the tones were still very faint and hardly understandable if I didn't concentrate too closely, I was getting there. After that, I asked him why he chose records and a rusty old phonograph to teach over CDs and speakers. He said, "It was better if you listened to the original record than having tolerated something ripped and burned on CDs. The quality is much better."
It was indeed. Since then, I was able to appreciate music even more. It wasn't much, but I did owe Guitar Man almost half my life.
The day before he disappeared, I was hanging around the subway while watching him turn the dials of the strings on his guitar. He was humming to himself again, and I sat quietly next to him, nibbling on a sandwich he got for me before I arrived. He sipped on the coffee I bought for him from a store nearby. Then he turned to me and asked, "What would you do if I left?"
I didn't know then that he was saying goodbye. I bit my lip, chewed carefully on the sandwich and said, "First, I'd make sure you're really gone. If I was certain you're not coming back, I'd be very sad. And lonely too."
"Will you cry?" he asked.
"I will!" I told him. He chuckled at this. "I'll cry for sure!"
Then, he set down his instrument. He turned to me and said, "Let me do something for you. It's your birthday, right?"
"Just sing for me," I told him. "I'm okay with that."
The next day, Guitar Man disappeared and he was never seen again. I did cry, and I was very lonely when he left but soon, I got over it and realized that he had somewhere else to go, some other place to play, and perhaps another person's life to change.
Sometimes I wondered what happened to him. How was he? Did he die? Did he ever think about me at all? When I took the morning train, my eyes would play games on me and often see his crouched form on the subway, playing a couple of songs for a small crowd.
At least once, on my third year, two years after he was gone, I saw him somewhere very close to town. I saw him through the window of the cab I was on; he was driving a beat down Toyota to south. I was certain it was him, with his crooked nose and hair tied back. He seemed to be doing well (apparently, he didn't die) and that same instant, I smiled. Then, I got out of the car and raced through the traffic, spreading my arms like wings and standing boldly in front of his car. It felt like the gesture was inevitable. The Toyota screeched to a halt while half of his body was flung slightly forward because of the sudden force.
I waved my arms with a smile. He smiled back as soon as he recognized my face, parked his car awhile and pushed open the door on the passenger's side. I climbed in quickly and the car was moving again.
"You're crazy," he said while chuckling.
"I missed you," I told him.
"I missed you too," he said.
"Did you think about me at all?"
"I did actually, many times a day, " he said. I could feel the blood run up to my face.
"I've become a musician," I said. That serene smile, again. I missed that smile. "I play the drums. It's the best I could manage. The beats make my heart thump and the music played loudly on my ears. I'm on a rock band, and we have gigs in the outskirts of town once in a while. I've learned to love music even more."
"What's your name?" I asked, unable to help myself.
He glanced at me and stuck his tongue out. "Don't push your luck." He steered the wheel and we turned left. "Why don't you call me Guitar Man, like you used to? I never heard the name since I left this place."
"Where have you been?"
"I was looking for a better place to play," he explained to me. "So I had to leave. Sorry if I didn't say goodbye."
"Why did you come back then?"
We slowed down a bit when he veered his eyes from the road to lock them on mine. He kept his smile on place. "There was no better place."
I blinked at his words and let them sink. I felt like being pulled in the bottom of ocean floor, drowning into something that was entirely pleasant. He had looked away when I began to understand what he meant. I couldn't help but smile at that.