To Say, I Love You

Life is a composition of story arcs. This is one.

I first met him one year and one month ago today. I use the term “met” lightly. One year and one month ago today, I was dragging my feet in self-pity up a metro escalator at Union Station. I was hanging my head in disdain for my task ahead. But, when I reached the top of the escalator, the sky was bright with the sun and I exited to his song. He was a lone man, standing in front of Columbus Fountain. He was playing his trumpet. I looked at him as I walked by, and I smiled and thought about how his music made the world a more beautiful place. And I decided to pick my feet up a little and acknowledge the beauty of the city that surrounded me.

I walked into my nearby destination—the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building—with a lingering grin. I prepared myself for what I had been dreading. First, I placed a blue tablecloth over the plastic table to which I had been assigned. Next, came the pamphlets and glossy one-pagers that I artistically fanned out across the aforementioned table. The final touches included a small woven basket filled with logo-bearing pens, a second basket containing logo-bearing chewing gum, and a few logo-bearing magnets scattered ever so purposefully throughout the table’s remaining open space. Once this was complete, I sat down to rehearse the spiel I’d give for the next three hours: 1.) Mission statement; 2.) Exploitation of an impoverished person’s story; 3.) Questionable statistics on number of people served; 4.) How much this all means to me, personally; and 5.) Bring it home with that super-low-to-the-point-of-questionable overhead percentage.

I looked around at the many federal government employees I would soon be persuading to voluntarily add my nonprofit’s name to their list of biweekly paycheck deductions. They would tell me sweet encouragements about how inspired they were to see a recent college graduate out here working for such an important cause. And I would look them back in the eyes with a smile and lie right to their faces about how this organization was the most worthy of their money, how it was an honor to work with it on the very issues I had studied in school, how I truly felt like I was making a difference every day I went into the office. At this point, I had been at this for a solid month—‘twas the season for workplace giving campaigns. The one redeeming factor of all of these fairs was that they gave me a little time away from our suburban office to let my mind slowly try to figure out how I was actually going to work on the homelessness issues I thought I had moved across the country to work on.

I observed the faces of these federal government employees who I assumed had all truly made it in life. I remember them all so vividly looking so damn happy. Before the reality could sink in that I was selling a broken dream to people who worked hard for their monthly wages and willingly chose to share them with nonprofits from the goodness of their own hearts, I quickly scribbled down some thoughts on my notepad. Before I was to be crushed again by reality, I wanted to try to capture the fleeting moment of bliss I experienced while floating over to the building on a gentle, trumpet-induced sound wave. And so, I wrote:

Another flawless, crisp, clean, bright, caring government building in THE CITY. They must all be so HAPPY. I exit the metro into an OASIS with a trumpet beckoning my SPIRIT. Hello, city. Hello, happiness. I will capture this SOON.

One year and one month later at about 6:15pm, I clocked out of work for the day. It was a new job for an organization I could believe in. With it came a thousand new realities, a million new perspectives. I was sleepy and it was a chilly thirty-eight degrees outside. I wanted to just get home and cozy up in my bed. But I remembered that a friend had mailed me a letter to my P.O. Box, which I hadn’t checked in far too long, so I mustered up my energy to take the metro to Union Station before heading home to the warmth of my covers.

Photo by: Kate Brown

I walked up the metro escalator in a sleepy stupor, but with my head held high. I exited to a dark night sky and the tail end of the rush hour scramble. The emergency shelter shuttle was parked outside of the station to transport the area’s homeless to a warm night indoors. And then, the first sound I truly heard was that of a trumpet. I looked down the street to my left. Sitting on the concrete divider of the new crosswalk on First Street NE was a lone man playing his trumpet. The same lone man of yesteryear. He played a melancholically beautiful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was a bewitchingly appropriate sound to have fill this space of public transit nestled between train tracks and the U.S. Capitol building. I was smitten to see him again. I left the area to get to my post office.

However, on my way back to the metro, I took a detour in order to approach this man. I was overwhelmed with an urge to tell him how much I appreciated him. As soon as I stood in front of him, he lowered his trumpet and looked at me with a smile warm enough to show just how cold the air was around us.

“I love the trumpet,” I broke the silence.

“I know you do, baby,” he replied, nodding, like we had been friends for a good, long while.

“It sounds really beautiful. Thank you for playing out here.”

“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much,” he said in a deep chuckle. But just as quickly as the bass of his chuckle permeated the circumference of our connection, his chuckles fell into tears.

He reached out a hand, and I brought mine to meet his. I looked at his backpack beneath his feet. I recognized it from the giveaways table at past social service events I had attended for homeless Veterans. I had so many questions for him, but I didn’t need to ask them.

“You know, I’m just trying…I just…I,” he tried desperately to tell his story through tears, “I’m just so cold out here, and I thank you, I really do. I…I just,” and he put his other hand in a fist up against his mouth, holding in the pain so effortlessly escaping from him.

I wanted to tell him about when I first met him and what his music had done for me then, but all I could manage to do was bring my free hand up to rest on my heart and just stand there with him in understanding of the shared hurt that is housed in the grace of existence. And then I leaned down and shared a hug with my crying trumpet man.

“You know, I’m just trying not to breakdown,” he said to me. And I thought about how, in a life where we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to truly live, so many souls, including myself, have likely murmured those same words into the night sky at one point or another.

“I love you. I really do,” he proclaimed into my eyes with the embracing warmth of our first meeting.

“I know. I love you too,” I replied, and smiled.

I said it because it was remarkably, wholeheartedly true.

My story arc, in a sense, concludes with an end of the day discovery of unexpected, true love on a chilly downtown street. My arc concerns the realization that the deepest form of love can be imparted upon a total stranger, that humanity is truly rooted in beauty.

The three words that we try so hard not to say to each other are the three very words that made me realize that this was never really a choice. There is no other option. It is just something that was meant to be — something I was, something we were, meant to do. And so, here I am for you. I shall lay bare my chest to love with my whole. And, although this makes me vulnerable, it also makes me open to love.

Click here to view more of Kate Brown’s photography and work.

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