I turned up my collar to the demands of a brisk, damp wind as I skirted the corner of Pío Bravo and Manuel Vega on the east side of El Centro. It was late in November, 2016, and I was plying the streets for photo ops. The light was poor. I shouldn’t have been poking around for any photographs as the conditions dictated I wasn’t about to be able to make any “keepers.”
I cocked my head hearing a faint yet melodious refrain carried to my ears by the gusting winter winds. Edie and I had been living in Cuenca for about a year and I didn’t recall hearing the sounds before. I looked down at my camera for the umpteenth time as if to assure myself it was turned on and set correctly to capture any encounters I might be fortunate enough to experience. As I crossed Muñoz, I paused to survey the apparently empty calle. Less than half a block up the street, there he stood in deep shadow, leaned against the corner of a building whose faded yellow color was blackened by the diesel exhaust of the million buses that had passed that way.
A limp, hand rolled smoke hung loosely from his lips, its tendrils of blue smoke quickly torn away by the strong breeze. I hesitated, again questioning my foolishness at attempting photography under those conditions. I redoubled my efforts at keeping the wind off my neck by adjusting my brightly colored alpaca scarf. Shaking my head in dismay at my purpose, I turned and began to walk up the street toward him. As a light mist began to fall, I shoved six pounds of camera and lens into a small waterproof bag.
He was playing his red accordion to no one, save himself. There were no other people anywhere in sight on the street. As I approached and he saw me, he stopped playing; I don’t know why. He looked at me, quizzically…in the same manner my gaze held him. He was staying dry standing under an overhang but I had gotten a bit damp in my foray up the street. Scattered about his feet were eight or nine stamped out butts. He’d been there for a while.
It was a pretty weird encounter. We both stared and I was going to speak but too much time had passed since we had come upon each other and speech seemed unnatural. So, I just kept my gaze locked with his. There wasn’t a sound save the wind and a little rain. It was sort of a “slap leather Ringo” moment as we were certainly sizing each other up. Without a word, he used his eyes only to motion to my camera bag and inquire as to its contents. I showed him and he grinned. I pointed at his accordion and the surrounding empty streets and laughed. He shared a deeper, throatier laugh and at that moment, I saw his money cup was empty, not a coin graced it’s chipped edges.
We took the separate ends of a gritty yarn-ball of stories and began to unwind them to each other. It’s pretty cool how easy it is to tell a stranger the goings and comings of your life and how they brought you to that moment. He didn’t have a hope of getting a tip for his efforts that day and I didn’t have a hope of getting a keeper photograph on that same wet, cold and dreary afternoon. But, the wind and rain had diminished and the tiniest “high-bright” light began to pierce the veil of angry clouds.
A line from a poem I like, “An Essay On Man” by Alexander Pope, was informing me of our situation. The line is, “Hope Springs Eternal.” We were two men, with two languages, from two cultures, two worlds apart separated by two hemispheres. And, we were standing there for two different reasons. But we were the same. He hoped for the chance to be paid for his musicals talents on a day that no one was in the streets and I hoped for a keeper photograph faced with flat, diminishing light and rain. There was no way either of us could succeed…or, was there?
We both knew at the same instant what was going to happen next. As I said, he hadn’t played since he saw me approaching. I motioned to his accordion and asked him to give me a song. Since there was a little light, I was going to attempt his street portrait. At the same time, my money-clip came out and I shucked a bill into his cup; I was anxious to hear his soft refrains.
He backed up a little closer to the wall and gave me another big grin as he raised his accordion and I, my camera. He looked me right in my eyes as the first powerful strains of “America the Beautiful” came off his keys. The writer and the composer of that song didn’t know each other anymore than he and I did. It was an unusual and emotional encounter evolving in the lonely, rainy streets of late afternoon. Tears welled up in my eyes as I made his portrait. I couldn’t stay to hear it all, I was too torn down. Where’d he get that song anyway and why did he choose it for me? I took off walking just to get away from the scene, I didn’t know where I was going but maybe I did. I told myself I was just “movin’ on.” Fact was, I wanted to find another human that day who had hope in his heart. The way I felt right then, it would be hard to find someone who could match what was springing from mine at the moment.