By: Anwar Iqbal
He is gone, disappeared among the waves. And I am looking for him. Has he disappeared though? He may have gone to another beach, perhaps on the West Coast, away from Hurricane Sandy.
Moving from one place to another was never a problem for him. He lived out of his suitcase, rather a large bag that he carried with him. He ate little, morsels of bread with coffee in the morning and some bread, with coffee and cheese at night. And he carried these with him too.
I met him at Ocean City, Maryland, where I also watched him playing his guitar. He played well. So when the session ended, he collected about $30, put his guitar back in its case and said: “Enough for the dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. Now I will go back to the waves, they are calling me.”
His name was Johnnie, Johnnie what, he never told me but he did tell me that he was a Vietnam veteran. I met him on the beach when one of my sons wandered away. He saw him far from us, brought him back and said: “You are from India, right? I know you people, you believe this country is crime free, so you let your children wander away. Let me tell you, it is not crime free. He can be kidnapped from anywhere.”
I told him I was from Pakistan, not India, thanked him and offered him a sandwich. He accepted the offer but put two sandwiches in his bag and said “This means less work and more time for the waves.”
He then said he only works to make enough for breakfast and dinner and never eats lunch. “And who pays your bills?” I asked. “No bills, I do not own or rent anything.”
He said he had a friend in Ocean City, and was living in his basement. But there are places where he does not have a friend and in such places, he has to work a little more to pay for sleeping somewhere. For him working a little more is playing his guitar a little more.
We became friends when I told him I was a war correspondent. “In Vietnam?” he asked. “No, in Afghanistan, during the Soviet occupation,” I said. “Do you sing?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Then what do you do? Those who have seen wars always do something other than what they do for a living, like singing, painting, writing poetry,” he explained.
I said I love poetry. Although I am not a poet, I do sometimes write a little poem. He asked me to read a poem about my war experience. I said I did not have one with me but I had one about terrorism in my cell phone and could read it out for him. He agreed.
“No, no, this is not how it happens, when crops of pain are reaped. Nobody beats drums, when village youths return home in body bags. Women do not dance, people mourn, they do not rejoice,” I read the poem.
“Their coffins are brought home, drenched in tears. No, no, this is not how it happens. You cannot sow seeds of hate and hope for flowers. When a storm lands, when a fire rages, homes burn, people cry. They do not rejoice, cities of pain do not thrive, flowers do not grow in fields of hate. No, no, this is not how it happens,” I finished.
He asked me if I wrote it in English. I said no, in my language, Urdu. He copied the English version in his diary and then asked me to recite some lines in Urdu. I did. He noted them too.
“You gave me a lot of work,” he said and disappeared.