The Banjo Player

He was standing next to a pick-up with New Jersey license plates with a banjo strapped around his neck and a face mask pushed up on his head.

“Look for the people who wear face masks,” someone suggested. “They will be the people who believe in science.” They will be the helpers in this pandemic. People who wear face masks show at least a modicum of respect for the welfare of others. (Pay attention Pence. You missed class the day health officials explained this.)

I turned left at the next light and swung back around the block, parking my  jeep right in front of the truck with the New Jersey plates.

The fella with the banjo was standing in front of a music and art store, which was closed.

I not only had on a face mask; I had on gloves as well. I hoped this fella would consider me a “safe person.”

(Look at how our language itself has become a reflection of Sci-Fi: masks, gloves, pandemic, safe people. Did I mention I always hated Science Fiction as a genre? I told my brother, a huge Sci-Fi fan, that I never wanted to live through a Sci-Fi epic and he responded, “Oh, yes, you do.” Brother John always makes a valid point; he’s so rationale like that.)

“Hey,” I said to the banjo fella. “Do you play?” I nodded at the banjo.

“Oh, I play at it,” he said.

“I’ve been looking to buy a banjo for my husband,” I continued. “I don’t really know anything about them.”

“This is an old one,” he replied. “I’ve traveled with it all over the country.”

“So are you in a band?”

“Not really. I used to be a lot more serious about it. Now I just play whenever.”

“I don’t really know much about banjos but I love bluegrass. I am hoping to get my husband into it.” (Tim used to pick a little but our son has his old banjo. We have a porch. Seems like somebody ought to play a banjo on it.)

“Well, this fella here, he can hook you up. He’s got banjos here. He’s a great guy. He won’t open again until May 4th, though. Hey, how did you know I had a banjo anyway?”

“I saw you get out of the truck when I was driving by so I circled the block to come back. Are you from here?”

“New Jersey,” he said.

“I have friends in New Jersey. Forked River.”

“Is that right? That’s real close to where I grew up. I’m Shawn.”

“Karen,” I replied.

“I know a bunch of Karens,” he smiled. His mask was still pushed up on his forehead like a blue blunted unicorn horn. He had kind eyes and a generous smile. With all the Karen memes going around I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.

“So what brought you to Oregon?” I asked.

Shawn said he had traveled and worked in a lot of places, but he’d been coming to Oregon for a long time. He used to be a climbing instructor at nearby Smith Rock. Now he lives here and works at a local establishment. For awhile he worked construction in Nashville. We reminisced about the times we spent at the Station Inn in Nashville. I told him about a Vietnam veteran who took me there years ago, who described it as a local pizza joint. That veteran and I shared a pizza while listening to Gillian Welch play and sing. Emmy Lou Harris standing right next to us, cheering on Gillian. It is still one of my favorite memories of Nashville, a city I had always regarded at Aunt Betty and Uncle Dody’s home. Aunt Betty still lives there. Her sons still run the family business.

He told me about some folks out in Sisters who play and invited me to come out and join them, you know… when this pandemic isn’t threatening our very lives.

“It’s funny,” I said. “Just last night I was listening to some bluegrass. Bonnie Raitt, Emmy Lou, and Brittany Howard and others were singing a tribute to Levon Helm. I looked around that band and there were white people and black people, gay and straight people, and the one thing that was bringing them together was music. I wondered why life can’t be like that. Everything feels so divided right now.”

I didn’t say it but I was thinking, how ironic it is that this virus is forcing us to be physically divided in an almost literal representation of how divided we have been politically, spiritually and emotionally these past few years.

Shawn told me how he was conceived decades ago following a march in Washington, D.C. for civil rights. “The first two years of my life were spent in a VW van driving around the country with my hippie parents.” Now though, he added, even his once hippie parents have become FoxNews watchers. “It’s hard to talk to my mom.”

I’d read about that happening to someone else recently. How they had watched their once civil rights minded parents transform into these right-wing Trump supporters.

“Gosh, it’s hard, isn’t it?” I’ve been teary all week long over that whole Vietnam death total connection to Covid19. Right before I left the house this morning I had told Tim that I was having a difficult time. Too many triggers. And to hear Jared Kushner call this government response a success, well, I just wish I was a man and could beat the living shit out of Kushner. He needs a can of whoop ass opened up on him in the worst way. If there is one thing I regret about being a woman,  it’s not being able to physically intimidate punks like Jared.

Shawn told me as he’s traveled around he’s been surprised to discover how some people around him thought. They seemed so much like him, and he had just assumed they were good-hearted people. But they hid their true selves until he got to know them better, and then he wished he hadn’t gotten to know them at all. “At least now, everything is out in the open,” he said. “Nobody is hiding nothing.”  Nope. The racism. The misogyny. The arrogance. The entitlement. It’s all out in the open now. “We’ve never lived in such a time as this.”

Ain’t that the gospel truth?

But Shawn is right. We have never lived in such a time as this. Somehow we have to find ways to make the best of it.

We can still have the most unexpected and delightful encounters.

We just have to keep looking the music-makers and adventurers. The kind-hearted wanderers. The unicorns who believe in science and in protecting the welfare of others.

You will know who the helpers are by the masks they wear.

Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press).



Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


AF Roger

about 3 years ago

You need to look up two short segments on the PBS series "Craft In America" on modern banjo maker Jim Hartel in Franklin County, New York. Hartel will give you a tutorial on the African heritage of the banjo and its development into the minstrel banjo of the 1850's. Hartel makes reproductions that sound like the ones of 170 years ago. Also find the segment with Rhiannon Giddens who has become a master of that classic instrument. Not only did it change her music, it changed her life. Music can do that. Music does that.


AF Roger

about 3 years ago

Oh, BTW, happy "Fall of Saigon Day" 45th anniversary! Which is only the tip of the iceberg of lives and treasure lost. We expected that to somehow "wash through" or "blow over" or "just disappear" also. No wonder I feel as I do today...


Leave a Comment

Please be polite. We appreciate that.
Your email address will not be published and required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.