Paul Olsen slumped onto the long bench and carefully placed his battered guitar case at his feet. So this was Grand Central Station, he thought, as he surveyed the bustling and cavernous transit hub. I literally am sitting in a railway station, gotta ticket for my destination, he thought smiling sadly.
He didn’t like being up this early and felt grubby. His eyes were red from playing late last night in a small club in lower Manhattan. His breath and clothes still smelled of smoke, and he’d barely been able to sleep in the cheap hotel where he had spent the last couple of nights.
He’d been on the road for six months now chasing the dream. He’d gotten good reviews when he’d played South by Southwest back in March and decided to strike out “on tour” for six months. He and his girlfriend, Sarah, worked it out. Together they had planned a route, and she had managed to get him dates at clubs and pubs stretching across the Midwest and down the Eastern seaboard. He had two more dates to play in Boston, before he would head back to their place in Flagstaff.
The one thing he had learned for certain over the six-month experiment, was that the dream was just that—a pretty, shiny bauble that he had chased, and chased hard, but had never come close to grabbing. When he and Sarah had imagined it, he knew the early going would be tough—lots of small crowds, noisy bars, people drifting by at local festivals—but somewhere, they both believed, he’d get noticed. A band would pick him up as an opening act, or maybe they’d need a guitar player or singer. They’d hear his original stuff, like his sound, and bring him on board.
Six months later, none of that had happened, and he was done. He’d go on home, lick his wounds, and finally figure out what to do with himself. He had turned 30 while on the road, celebrating alone somewhere in Illinois. He could still remember the harsh words he had with Sarah that night. As he grew more tired of the one-night stands, his mood became dark and he found it hard to listed to her encouragement. They spoke less and less, until they finally quit calling each other at all.
He slouched even further into the bench and closed his eyes hoping to doze away the 45 minutes that remained before his train would leave. He was roused when a young man in a red scarf propped up a well-worn instrument case on the bench next to him. The kid sat on the edge of the bench and worked his fingers around the corners of his ticket.
Paul sat up coughing and rubbed his hands over his stubbled face. The young man seemed to be almost vibrating with energy. It would have been annoying on any other morning, but today he was feeling a sense of peace—the peace that comes with giving up.
“A fellow musician about to hit the road, are you? I’m Paul Olsen,” he said greeting the boy and extending his hand.
“Jackson. I’m Jackson Allen. You can call me Jack. That’s what most people do anyway,” he said as he shook hands, seeming unsure and ill at ease.
Before Paul could reassure him, he rattled on.
“I’m off to Boston to study music at the Conservatory, the New England Conservatory of Music. I play cello. I play cello all the time, sometimes six hours a day. Sometimes I wish I had time to learn piano or guitar like you play, but I figure if I’m going to be good, I need to stick with one thing. I’m a good cello player. I’m just not so good with anything else.” He stopped and took a breath. “Sorry, I’m not sure why I just blurted all of that out.”
“That’s OK, Jack,” said Paul. “I always like talking music, especially with someone who works as hard at it as you do. I can’t say that I’ve always been as dedicated.”
“It’s all I do; all I think about is music. And now I’m going off to school in a strange place, and I know I can play, but I’m such a music nerd that I just don’t know about relating to, you know, people. I bet you’re good at that. You seem good with people.”
Paul looked at the boy, and sighed. “Look, Jack, lucky for you, you are going to a place that will be teeming with music nerds. If you can introduce them to yourself the way you did with me, you’ll get along just fine. Just take a deep breath now and then and remember to listen to their stories. Let them talk about themselves.”
“Could I—could I practice, with you?” stammered Jack.
“What you just said. Slowing down, getting someone to talk to me. Like I would say something like, ‘Nice to meet you, Paul. Where are you headed today?’”
“Yeah, that would work,” Jesus Christ, he thought. When did I become a life coach for adolescents?
“Well, let’s see,” he continued, “and I might say ‘“Well, Jack, I’m a failed musician who’s been playing his ass off for the last six months with two more shows left in Boston before I head back to Arizona and get a real job.”’
“A failed musician? Really?”
“I left home thinking I’d work my way into the music business in some form or fashion, but discovered no one wanted to listen to my songs so I started playing in bars and clubs, wherever I could make a buck, covering fucking Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, the Beatles, you name it. Singing in places with ten or twelve folks getting drunk and talking over my music. Two more shows, and then I’m going home and hoping my girl will take me back.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry,” Jack said looking deflated. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m hopeless with people.”
Paul smiled. “No, you did exactly the right thing. I opened the door, and you asked the question that got me talking to a complete stranger. That’s good work, my friend. Not your fault that I’m calling it quits. I’m happy to meet someone who’s just getting himself started. Music’s a tough business, and you’ve already got the “hard work” part of it down. You’ll be fine.”
“Can I ask you something else?” asked Jack.
“Sure, we’ve got time.”
“Who are Fucking Simon and Garfunkel?”
Paul stared at him in disbelief. “You’ve never heard of Simon and Garfunkel? My dad named me after Paul Simon. He and his partner Art Garfunkel made some pretty good music back in the 60’s and 70’s.”
“I don’t know much modern music,” Jack said, abashed once again. “I’ve been studying the classics for so long.”
“It’s never too late,” said Paul as he extracted his guitar from the case and began tuning it up. “Get that oversized violin out. Let’s do one last New York show. I’m going to play a tune I was thinking about when you showed up called ‘Homeward Bound’. Listen a little bit and maybe you can find a thread you can pick up on and add a nice base line or something.”
He gave the boy a minute to tune and get set up. Some travelers paused to look at the unlikely pair. Others grimaced and avoided them figuring them for buskers looking for a handout.
As Paul began to strum the intro, the sweet feeling of making music swept over him once again, the way it almost always did, but this time amplified in this cavernous, echoing station, easily his largest venue, largest audience ever.
I’m sittin’ in the railway station
Got a ticket to my destination
On a tour of one-night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one-man band.
As Paul’s voice soared and echoed, Jack watched his hands work smoothly over the fretboard and recognized the chord pattern right away. He closed his eyes and listened, moving his fingers up and down the strings, his bow ready. As Paul got to the chorus, Jack began to see the notes scroll before his mind’s eye, and his bow began to move and sing out a compliment to the guitar.
They played together as if they’d been partners for years and a dozen people stopped to listen, delaying their travels for a moment. As Paul struck the final chord, their patrons clapped enthusiastically. Jack’s face was beaming as Paul prompted him to get up and take a bow before the people drifted off with a few kind words. Jack was startled to discover some loose change and a couple of dollar bills sitting in the open cello case that he had quickly set aside.
He showed the money to Paul, and Paul clapped him on the shoulder. “Good for you, boy! You are a card-carrying member of the league of struggling musicians as of today,” causing Jack to laugh self-consciously.
They packed up their instruments as a mechanical voice began an announcement for the imminent departure of the train to Boston.
“Let’s go, Paul, that’s us,” called Jack. “Maybe we can play some more on the train, or we can practice talking some more. We’ve got four hours…” his voice drifted off as he saw Paul sit down staring at his ticket.
“No, Jack, you go on now.” He looked up at the young man’s face, flush with hope and excitement. “I think I’ll cash this in and see what kind of connection I can make to get me back home to Arizona.”
“But what about your shows in Boston? I’d come to see you if they’ll let me in.”
“And I’d play some more Fucking Simon and Garfunkel for you. You and the ten other drinkers who might or might not show up. No, playing with you in a place like this—it just doesn’t get any better. If I’m really done, this is the moment that I want to remember—playing for free in a big old train station with someone like you. You go on to Boston now, Jackson. You’re going to be a fine musician.”
“You really think so, Jack?”
Paul smiled, any sadness he’d been feeling gone now. “I am.” He looked around the bustling station. “This was one hell of a place to pull off an audition, and you passed with flying colors.”
“You sure you want this to be your last show?”
“Hell, no, not sure about anything. But this would be one amazing way to end my musical story. Now, get on to your train, my friend. You’ve got a school and a whole lot of music waiting for you.”
Jack hesitated as if there was more he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find a way to put it into words. Paul helped him with his bags, his cello, and they shook hands. He watched the young man make his way into the throng of people headed on to Boston.
Paul sat back down on the bench, pulled out his phone and punched in Sarah’s phone number hoping she’d pick up. He listened to the phone begin to ring and hoped he hadn’t burned his final bridge with her. He was anxious to tell her he was coming home.