A few days ago on a bright Sunday morning I took my three children downtown. We had breakfast at The Market, a beautiful airy cafe that has been in this city for many years. We brought with us a book of fairy tales and toys for the baby, and we feasted on freshly made pastries and fruit and perfectly frothed cappuccino.
Then we took a walk. We found ourselves on the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian mall in Denver frequented by runaways, homeless people, the mentally ill, and the generally desperate. One also finds yuppies (like us) and tourists, but the street offers a solid picture of the suffering and inequality, so often hidden, that more and more predominates this country.
As we were walking we heard music. It was the long high sound of a trumpet, fairly well played. We turned to listen, and saw a black man, not dressed warmly enough for the chill, leaning against an old stone wall, horn at his lips. He had the instrument’s case in front of him, waiting for change.
We gave it to him, and he offered to play for my son. He got down on one knee, and played a melancholic rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” He was drunk. And a vet, possibly homeless.
His instrument sent me instantly back to my own childhood, during which I spent a lot of time in Chicago, with my father’s parents. My grandpa, too, played the trumpet. It sat on a polished walnut table in my grandparent’s living room. I used to listen to stories of how he would play in a band during his college years at Oberlin. He played and loved to play; he and my grandma saw Ella Fitzgerald. Before she was famous.
My grandpa went on to Harvard Law School, and then on to found his own law firm in Chicago. My father and his siblings grew up knowing no need, of the physical sort at any rate. University was a given, political awareness assumed, cultural exploration simply part of the passing of the days.
This is how I am bringing up my children as well: we are not wealthy, but we expect our children to explore the world, to give back to it, to learn from it, engage with it.
My children have an inheritance: abundance. The abundance of love.
The abundance of stability. The abundance of consistency, and the abundance of each other.
And that makes us rich, a fact for which I am grateful every moment of every day.
Since that day, I have found myself thinking of the man with the trumpet. What is his story? How did he learn to play? What are his boyhood memories? Where and how fast did he grow up? And how is it he came to be playing for change on a cold Sunday morning on the streets in Denver, Colorado?
What was his inheritance?