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An Interesting Encounter in a Public Space

An old graveyard, dating back to the 17th century, on Historic Huguenot Street.

photo © Carol Bergman



I think the thing that is so special about folk music is that it is a reaffirmation of the celebration of the human spirit and human life.


-Mary Travers, in a 1983 NPR Interview



I was sitting in a public space reading The New York Times, my once-a-week paper paper treat. I read slowly, contemplatively, sometimes with a pen and paper to hand. I choose a different day each week to buy the paper paper and read electronically the rest of the time. I don't like to be interrupted. Slow reads, the hum of conversation around me, are my meditation. But the man sitting next to me turned and said, "Any good news today?" White haired, his glasses slipping off his nose, I was surprised by the friendly greeting.


An interlude here to explain that extended conversation between strangers in the small upstate NY town where I live are rare. The mores here are different: people cherish their privacy and seem more wary of strangers. Urban for most of my life, I have never not had conversations in public spaces, so I welcome them. Indeed, I cherish them. Who was this friendly guy? "Good news. Not so much these days," I said, answering his initial question. Then I showed him a digital photo of a tree from the bottom up. The botanists are studying the survival mechanisms of trees, I told him. "The trees need this, and so do we."


"That's a Republican newspaper," he said.


I took a breath. "You must be very left of center to say that," I said. But his statement made me smile.  I wasn't sure if he was joking, or not.


"Are you wearing patchouli?" he asked, without missing a beat. "That scent brings me back to the 60s. We all wore patchouli."


This comment was a bit too personal, but I rolled with it. In fact, I was relieved. I wasn't up for defending the newspaper of record or its 1700 dedicated reporters all over the world, or its editorial stance, or anything else. The origins of patchouli were a diversion and I launched into them. I sounded like a wiki entry.


"I only read the paper electronically," he interrupted. "And the news is hard to take. These wars."


"Heartbreaking," I said, relieved that we had quickly found common ground.


"I'm 88-years-old, I remember WW II, I remember when there was no Thruway and it took three hours to get to the city. My family has been living here since 1638."


Just imagine. 1638. "What did you say your name was?" I asked, knowing that I was in the presence of a descendant of one of the colonial settler families, all of them slave owners.  But I didn't want to get into that, not right away.  


"Dewitt Jansen," he said. "There's a road named after us here."


"Dutch," I said, and that was enough for the moment.


Dewitt got up out of his seat, maybe to stretch, and I could see that he was very thin, almost emaciated. He looked like he'd surfaced from one of the old graves in town, a ghostly presence. The town is haunted with them. Then he sat down again and we talked some more.


"What did you do when you were working?" I asked.


"I was a pick-up jazz pianist, traveled all over the world, played with many bands. I once dated Mary Travers, remember her? Peter, Paul and Mary. She's dead now."


"She sang jazz before her folk music career?"


"She was an artist."


More than an artist, she devoted her musical career to social justice, I remembered. The group had 12 hit singles. One of them, If I Had A Hammer, became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. She died of leukemia in 1989.


"Do you still play?"


"Look at these fingers. All curled up," he said.


"But you've been blessed with an interesting life," I said. "I think the gods have smiled upon you."


"Not entirely," he said, facing me straight on now. "My youngest daughter is dying of cancer. They can't seem to stop the spread."


I thought he would burst into tears. I wanted to hug him. Instead, I gave him my card and said, "You're talking to a journalist. If you ever want to write or tell your story, give me a call."


"A lot on my plate right now," he said, disconsolately.


"I understand."


Retreating into my journalist's persona, I had needed distance to recover from his revelation, not about Mary Travers, but about his daughter.



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