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“Blind Man Blesses Magnificently By Making Beautiful Music!

By Debbie Chen
Pittsburgh Standard

Nov 30, 2009

Chen's Commentary:

The man can sing.  Sitting in front of a CVS pharmacy with a duct tape covered cup in his hand, he belts out Gospel songs in a husky, rich vibrato, managing to spin the tunes above the screech of Pittsburgh’s traffic.  He constantly nods to the beat of his jukebox, and when it is turned off, to the beat in his head as people passing by occasionally drops a dollar or two in his way. 

Everyone who passes him can see that he is blind--his eyes unfocused and constantly fixed so high up you only saw the whites like slivers of moon—but what did it matter? 

It isn’t his eyes but his voice—his familiar, hopeful voice—that people hurrying through the streets recognize.

As I often like to sing snatches of worship songs while walking to and from my classes, I was thrilled to hear this gentleman bellow songs in praise of my Jesus. 

How else could I feel but intrigued? 

Here was a man who hadn’t a regular job or the gift of sight and was different from me in every way, yet we were connected by our joy of worship.  I wondered whether he had a home or family.  I wondered whether he was happy or if he truly believed in God.  And I also wondered why American Idol hadn’t snatched him away from us college students yet.

On one bright Friday afternoon, while returning from class with my friend Yiran, I spotted my chance of having those questions answered.  That gentleman , whose name I didn’t even know, was sitting on his jukebox in his usual spot, bobbing his head and accompanied by a lady sitting cross-legged beside him.  As I hemmed and hawed over approaching a stranger for an interview, Yiran spoke up.

“Don’t worry, Debbie,” he said. “Just go up there and ask him.  I’m sure everything will be fine.  Tell you what, I’ll come with you.” 

With that reassurance, I squared my shoulders and walked up to him, trying to squelch my shyness. 

With a kindness that I found comforting, he embraced the idea of an interview and introduced himself as Bill, while his friend introduced herself as Jenny.  His voice when he spoke was as warm as when he sang, and as he patiently waited for me to pull out a notebook, I excitedly ran through all the speculations and questions that had passed my mind. Yiran stood at a distance, also curious and eager to listen.

Though I was initially afraid to ask the personal questions of which I wondered most, Bill proved to be a gentle and avid storyteller, open to any question that flitted through my mind. 

He held a great pride and confidence in his occupation, declaring, “Some people call it panhandling, but I call it entertainment.  I’ve gotta support my son.”   

When asked for how long he’d taken this profession, he answered, “I’d say about thirty years.  Thirty years.  But I don’t do it everyday.” 

Because, of course, there was the rain and its effects on the jukebox to take in account.

Gradually, I began to piece together a colorful picture of his past.  Born at only two pounds, Bill had entered the world blind in 1949.  While doctors tried to retrieve his sight, they used too much oxygen in an operation, which damaged his pupils past recovery.  Having gone to a school specifically for the blind and feeling the scorch of racism, Bill not only endured the nuance of secondhand books provided specifically for black students but also taunts of “smoky” and “jungle bunny,” which even the teachers adopted. 

“I got plenty of demerits, which I didn’t care,” he said with an easy grin. 

In fact, he didn’t enter twelfth grade, to which he said, “I’m not ashamed that I had to go drop out of school.” 

For who cared to go to a school that didn’t care for him? 

Though I had learned about racism through textbooks and long-winded documentaries in class, I, being born in an integrated suburb with Chinese parents who didn’t feel the impact of black history, found that his stories made the lessons of racism actually real. 

While we immersed ourselves in his past, a kid whose hood obscured his face raced by and dropped something in his cup, to which Jenny responded with a  cheerful ‘God bless you!’  However, when we tipped the cup over, we found instead a white, plastic pipe.

I sat in shock as Bill said fiercely, “They’re nasty!  They’re filthy!  Now you see why I sing Gospel…to endure the hatred!” 

I couldn’t understand why anyone would bother to insult someone who hadn’t hurt anyone.  Bill hadn’t asked the boy for money; he wasn’t even singing.  The boy was alone, so he probably wasn’t doing it for the amusement of his peers.  The boy had insulted Bill for his personal benefit, as if hurting him would achieve something.  And I couldn’t quite figure out what that something was.

I shook my thoughts away and turned back to Bill.  Apparently, people also put chewing gum and candy wrappers in his cup.  While I had originally listened to his stories with a touch of skepticism, for I knew the stories came from one viewpoint, I found myself much more willing to believe what he told me.  This prejudice and cruelty, according to Bill, even extended to the church. 

Bill had been mistreated at the Baptist Church where he used to attend, to which he said, “That’s why I don’t go to church…it’s for sighted people.  They love Jesus but hate the disabled.” 

I wished he had found a church that could have been a better influence, because from my experience, the support of Christian brothers and sisters can prove to be a strong and comforting bond.  Instead, he listens to the Bible on records and tapes, reading the Scripture through Braille. 

His friend Jenny also finds God in other places.  “I pray too.  I don’t go to church, but I still pray,” she said, her eyes earnest.

Despite his negative experiences with the church, Bill’s faith in God remains strong. 

He refuses to sing rap or hard metal, because he feels “responsible for what I sing out here.” 

Throughout our entire interview, he frequently referred to Jesus, emphasizing the influence He had on his life. 

When asked by another friend of his whether he was getting paid for this interview, he remarked, “The Lord Jesus Christ will reward me in all ways.” 

Though I had taken hours away from his singing, he never once asked for payment. 

Bill was gracious to me, and he was gracious to Yiran when I finally remembered to introduce him.  He gave me his life story when others wouldn’t give him the time of day.  I discovered that the cup he held was duct-taped because he feared other people would cut their hands when leaving their contributions.  The talents and joys he found in his life he related to God. 

Yiran asked him about his singing background, to which he responded, “God gave me a voice.” 

Meeting Bill helped me realize that I could find God in all places, whether it be in the church or on the streets of Pittsburgh.  This man, who met people through the touch of an arm rather than the glance of an eye, shared his stories like a grandfather. 

In contrast to evangelists who condemned everyone to hell and brandished the Bible in their faces, I preferred Bill’s joyful praise, acceptance of his situation, and personal sharing of faith through friendship. 

As a writer, I believe that the most interesting stories lived are the ones never told.  I am grateful for these stories, for not only is my curiosity finally satisfied, but I also no longer see him as a hobo off the streets, but rather an artist.  When I walk down the streets of Pittsburgh, it isn’t just Bill’s voice that follows me, but his lesson of overcoming prejudice and his message of self-respect and faith.

Debbie Chen can be reached at


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