Billy and the Banjo
Judging a book by its cover never seemed to hit home until today. Walking to "Johnny Rockets" in Georgetown, DC, I could not help but to notice a fond sound coming across the street, when I made eye contact with a guy playing his Banjo. Notorious for "jay-walking", I saw some space between cars where I could run a 40-yard dash to other side of the sidewalk, where Billy was located.
When I got to Billy, the first thing that came to my mind was that this guy was homeless. The first thing I did was reach in my pocket and put my last $10 in his bucket that was located by his feet. As I squatted down to place my money in his iron bucket, I noticed his dog, named "Squirrel", looking extremely tired and lethargic (probably from dancing the entire day from the melodious tunes from Billy's banjo).
Any other day of the week, I would have dropped my money off and kept it moving. However, on this day, there was something burning inside of me saying: Learn more, soak in this moment, learn about his story. And that's what I did.... I swallowed all of my pride, all of my fear of being rejected and started a conversation with Billy.
I asked Billy, "Tell me about yourself, I want to learn more about you, if you don't mind"
Billy put his banjo down, started smiling, adjusted himself on the two black, plastic crates that were holding him up and replied, "So my name is Billy, this is my dog Squirrel .. we come here every day from 1pm - 6pm. People think I'm homeless because I ride my bike here every day. However, I'm not homeless, I play music to eat.”
Tuning out every bystander staring at me for having a heart-to-heart with who they think is a homeless person, I ask Billy, "Out of all things to be doing to make a living, why music? Does this even pay good enough to survive?"
Buddy replies, "I've been surviving my entire life, music is my escape, music is today's religion. I once made a crying baby stop crying, simply by playing the guitar. I play to make people smile"
"But if you play music to eat, doesn't that mean....." , my reply before Billy laughingly cuts me off.
Billy puts his hands on his knees, sits up higher on the crates and replies, "The guitar is the first instrument I learned, in 1968. Since then I have gone on to teach myself how to play the piano, as well as the banjo, in which I taught myself 3 years ago. I grew up in NY, where I started my own band and use to travel the country until hard times hit."
"Well what brought you to Georgetown, out of all places to play, why here", I ask.
Billy clears his throat and replies, "I went to college at Georgetown University in 1981, during the Patrick Ewing glory days, remember him? I was here at the same time as him. As I said before, time passed, I had 7 kids since then, and life happened. But I'm still surviving."
At this point, I can tell this conversation, started to get the best of him as he dropped his head to look at his dog then to look back to me. Getting the que that it was probably time to wrap this conversation up, I ask Billy, "is there any advice that you can give someone like me who is trying to make it in life?"
Billy smiles and replies, "My biggest advice for you is to smile as much as you can. I see so many people walk past me with more money than I have, yet they don't smile. After taxes and bills, I make less than $400/month, yet I'm the happiest man in the world. I have so many bad memories." Billy looks to the his right where he placed his banjo and picks it up. "I learned these strings by memory. I'm here to make people happy, and these strings make me happy. My advice for you to is find whatever makes you happy and do it with all your heart, even when no one cares anything about you."
I stick my hand out to shake Billy's hand, Billy stands up, as a sign of respect, and firmly shakes my hand.
"Thank you Billy, if I had more money I would give it to you, but I will be back. I want to do a story about you", I say.
Billy replies, "You are okay, you truly made my day, people walk by me every day, and could care less to even look at me, yet you actually talked to me. I know I am not a bum and you don't look at me like one in which I respect you for. Let me know if you ever need anything from me".
I ask Billy if I can record him play, before I leave. He sits back down, puts his banjo strap around his back and proceeds to do what he does best, MAKE PEOPLE SMILE!
Thank you Billy! This was a humbling moment for myself. It showed me that every story matters, no matter who the person is. It's sickening that people think they're better than someone because he or she has more wood pulp (google it) than someone else. We all put on our pants on the same way, lace our shows up the same way. What makes you better than the next person? Better yet, are you happy? Money can put commas in your bank account but it can't buy you genuine happiness. That comes from inside.
- Our Story Lines