In February, 2016, our family rented the second floor of a row house one block from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. We spent a wonderful few days exploring museums, monuments, and landmarks, but our most precious moment was an encounter with a homeless man on the way to the National Archives.
We took the Metro from our apartment on Capitol Hill to the Archives downtown, but had to get off early at L’efant Plaza Station because of work being done further up the line. The long walk on the cold windy day made us wonder if we had wasted our Metro cards, but even simple inconveniences can prove to be divine appointments.
The massive Archives building loomed over us as we crossed Constitution Avenue. On the opposite side of the street, a homeless man sat by the curb, leaning on a street sign, playing his trumpet. His song filled the crisp, cold February air.
I asked my husband if he had any money for this man. He was ready with his wallet in an instant. He has been married to me long enough to know I would not be able to pass this man by. As he pulled a out bill, our 13 year old son, Caleb, grabbed his own wallet and pulled out some spending money for the trumpet-playing man, too.
The children are always watching.
John handed me the bill. I placed it in the trumpeter’s cup. We lingered for a moment, and when the song was over, I leaned down to shake his hand.
“God bless you,” I said. “You play beautifully. What’s your name?”
“John.” Well that was easy. We laughed and told him he was in good company. He laughed too and shook my John’s hand. We found out we were the ones in good company: the company of a Vietnam veteran.
He asked our names, and we made our round of introductions. “We’re celebrating a special holiday weekend, you know. President Lincoln’s birthday.”
“Yes,” I said, “we are. And it’s my birthday, too.”
“Oohh, it’s your birthday?” He cooed. He looked around at our children. “You kids better be good to your mama, you hear?”
“Preach it, John,” I encouraged him.
“My, Miss Julia, you are certainly blessed. You have a very happy birthday. Make sure those kids mind you, now.”
I smiled bright. “Thank you, John. I will.” He reached up to give me a hug. I hugged him back and kissed his cheek.
Human touch mends broken hearts. We turned to go. When we got about a quarter of the way down the block, I heard my name.
“JULIA!” I turned around. John, the trumpet-playing, Vietnam vet was calling me.
“This one’s for you.”
He lifted his horn to his lips and “Happy Birthday” rang out. I stood with my family, motionless. We listened, soaking in the trumpet sound, and the special blessing of connecting with a forgotten human being. It was the best “Happy Birthday” serenade I have ever received.
When the song was over, I put my hand up to salute John, the soldier who served in Vietnam, the musician who played his trumpet like Louis Armstrong, and the homeless man who sat outside on the cold sidewalk in the middle of winter, depending on the kindness of strangers. He smiled and waved back. We turned around to walk inside, quietly aware of the gift we had just been given.
The day we left D.C., I asked John to drive down Constitution Avenue for me, just in case. It was not on the way, but he loves me, so we went. My trumpet-playing friend wasn’t there, as he had said he always was. Grief stung my heart; grief for the man I would not see again, and for his life that I could not fix. But I also realized that some moments are not meant to be replayed, because they just can’t be. If you miss the one, you don’t get another.
I am so thankful that we gave John the Trumpet-Player a few dollars that day, because what he gave back we can never repay.
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2