“Blind Man Blesses Magnificently By
Making Beautiful Music!”
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
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
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
“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
In fact, he didn’t enter twelfth grade, to
which he said, “I’m not ashamed that I had to go drop out of
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
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
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
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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