There is a man I keep in my phone who 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. The one where I was connected to the each molecule and nature and could feel the magic of me coursing through my veins.
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. A bundle a space and peace I glided across the street to get a slice of New York’s finest. Cheese with extra parmesan.
I let each morsel of cheese melt in my mouth and my cheeks curled up with a smile. “What grand and glorious adventure can I have today?” I asked myself, in love with my pizza and in love with the world. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder.
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.
“Sure. Of course” 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. An awe filled his voice that was unusual. “You aren’t from here. You aren’t like anyone. Your eyes are so peaceful. And you have a damn fine ass.”
I looked at him both in wonder and shock, unsure if I should be insulted or flattered. But if it was sweet talk or honesty or pure manipulation, his words, his awe, his tone… I felt seen.
“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!”
“I gotta be honest, you want to be famous like Britney Spears though, you’re gonna need to add a little more sex. And shake that booty. It’s all about the booty. Yours is nice, but it doesn’t shake enough.”
I didn’t want to be Britney Spears! I was a theatre major! He was flattering and grotesque. And clearly not listening to a word I said.
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. Cause 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. I wasn’t so sure.
He called and wanted to take a bath in my bathtub. I met him at the park with 5 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. Should I keep my distance? I wondered. 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. John Blair’s squeaky Vitar was a horror of a sound. But it was the first time I had gotten to sing 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. “I have some money kid. We’ll go to Florida. Come to Florida with me. I’ll make you famous. We’re a good pair.”
“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. One legged and dirty. Talking in circles and complicated. I knew nothing of vets or the war. “This matters kid. It’s important you see this.”
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. “Oh course if you want. I just need to know more. Like where your accounts are, where your violins are, how to get your mail. I don’t know anything about you.”
“I’m not going anywhere kid. If I think I’m going anywhere, you’ll be the first to know.” He gave me his PO box key and asked if I’d pick up his mail when I visited him next.
“I can’t come down here all the time” I told him firmly before I left. It’s far and I’m really busy with work. But I’ll come when I can.”
“No, you’ll come” he told me confidently. “I know you will. Plus, we’ve gotta start planning your career. I’ll get Roberta Flack to come down here and meet you. You’ll come.”
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. His voice was speeding up and his messages sounded urgent. Calm yourself. You’ve got nothing but time.
“Call me kid. John Blair here. Please can you call?” Beep.
“I just wanted to say, that I’m really grateful. I know you can’t come to Florida. I just, I’m really happy to know you. Can you come see me tomorrow? It’s important. I really want to see you. Bye kid.” his tone was softer. Beep.
“John Blair. Hey thanks for everything. I just really needed to say thank you. And see if you could come see me. I’d just really like to see you. Can you call me?” Beep
5 messages. 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 hoped I wasn’t getting into trouble. I didn’t know where this would lead.
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. 5 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. I’d left 2 messages for John Blair that morning enquiring about visiting hours and he was just getting back to me now?
“Hey there” I answered the phone with my polish free hand.
“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.”
There are things you aren’t prepared for. Things you can’t prepare for. I jumped out of the chair, wet polish on my fingers, walked out to the sidewalk and collapsed. 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. This stranger who became my friend and told fanciful stories. The strange gift we were to each other in his last two weeks he was alive. The caring he had shown me I was. The adventures he had insisted I take.
But the story did not end there. It couldn’t. 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. And with no information, I still couldn’t let him down.
“Dammit John Blair, you promised you would tell me more. So you tell me now… where the hell do I start?”
Who was John Blair? Who would care he was gone? I’ll go on a treasure hunt John… just give me a clue.
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.
Who was John Blair? Who would care he was gone.
“Hey, he was homeless” my boyfriend Gabriel reminded me. “How amazing that he met you. What if there is nothing to find? You really did your best.”
I wracked my brain. It wasn’t enough. He’d had a girlfriend! I didn’t know where she lived. He had violins at a synagogue? There were 1000 in the city. His possessions he had left with a lawyer. A nameless lawyer?!
Who was John Blair? Who would care he was gone? The question haunted me. I couldn’t let it go.
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. www.gmail.com
If I was his email, what would I be?
User name: firstname.lastname@example.org I typed, playing games with myself.
Password: v-i-t-a-r, that bloody awful instrument he’d invented. And with a smack, I hit enter.
And that was a moment for me, a striking, defining moment for me. A moment where there was a God, and there was a plan, and there was hope and magic and a point to this crazy life. It was a moment where I knew that John was laughing his ass off.
For with the stroke of a key and a random worthless guess… Gmail opened, and with it, opened up; the life of John Blair.
And while stone cold dead, the crazy tragic comedian was about to drag me on one final New York adventure. “The adventure and the love in the death of John Blair.”
I honestly don’t know how to tell this next part of the story. It’s wild and wonderful, so how do I set the tone? 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. Or just tell you she we real?
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. “I can’t tell you that Ma’am. We don’t share information about our residents.”
Well if she does live here, will you give her this letter? It’s urgent. And if she doesn’t live here, well, I guess it really doesn’t matter.” I thrust the letter into his hands imploringly. “Please. If she does live here, please?”
“Will that be all ma’am?” The doorman asked me.
“Yeah. That would be all.”
She was real and she called.
Do I reenact the raspy voice of Sparky Martin down in New Orleans? “Have you called Bill? You gotta call Cosby. Oh, he will be so sad to hear that Cat is dead.”
I found a lawyer who was holding his CDs who knew the Rabbi who was holing his violins. The Rabbi knew that his girlfriends 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 had handled the details, flew his sister out and paid for the cake. They had been lovers back when they were kids. “I guess I owe him that.”
I sat in 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 twenty something attendees paying respect to John that day as she sang. It
was the concert of a lifetime, only without the crowds or the cheer.
“Does anyone else have anything to say?” The pastor asked “before we close?” He was about to launch into prayer.
“I guess I do.” I stood up in my pew. I felt awkward and out of place.
“Well” I took a deep breath. “Of everyone here, I think I knew John the least. We met only 3 weeks ago so I hardly feel I should be talking. But he was my friend. Truth be told, he was one of my best friends.
I met John crossing the street on 71st St to get pizza. I wouldn’t normally stop. But I was open that day to the adventures of the world. And I guess I just wanted to say that I am grateful that I was.
In two and a half weeks John Blair took me on an incredible adventure. He showed me how to live boldly and without fear. He got me to loosen up a little. Well, a lot. And he showed me the undeniable existence of god or the divine or some sort of magic by bringing us all together today.
I guess that’s all. I guess I just wanted to say that it might have looked like I was helping him. But he was helping me too.”
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. That stayed a mystery, a legend, or both.
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.
Well, not exactly.
I had my courage… and my knowing that magic was alive.
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