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By Damion Michaels

In high school in rural Mississippi, I worked three jobs, supported a household and had my eyes set on college. I learned that I could get a substantial scholarship to college by joining a club called the Optimist Oratorical Society, writing speeches and giving those speeches in competitions. Now don't ask me what the Optimist Oratorical Society is, I have no idea to this day. All I knew was that this seemed like a pretty easy gig to get a scholarship.

So off I went, writing speeches, getting dressed in a second-hand suit and delivering these speeches to well-meaning older people who looked like holdovers from a VFW meeting. I knocked them dead, talking about what, I cannot remember, but I do know that I ended up in the final competition in Jackson, Mississippi. Now this was a big deal for me. I was no country bumpkin but Jackson, Mississippi was a real city compared to where I was living at the time.

I took time off from my jobs with my employer's blessings. I was endowed with a new suit, courtesy of the generous man who chaired the local Optimist Oratorical Society, and I traveled with a classmate and a student from another school to Jackson, Mississippi.

That Friday night, I wowed them with a speech I wrote in the stockroom of the grocery where I worked. But I did not wow them enough. A kid who gave a speech about trees beat me. Trees? I won second place and $1000 in scholarship money. I was terribly disappointed. My classmate and I commiserated for about 15 minutes when we realized that we could leave the hotel. No chaperone. No adults. No parents. See ya!

We went for a walk in the chilly night looking for trouble. Any kind. Okay, we were easy to entertain. No sooner did we get two blocks from the hotel when we heard this soulful, mourn of a clarinet. Just a few notes were played. As though the music were a passing thought. We strained to see a white bearded black man sitting on a concrete planter. We walked past the man and he heartily greeted us with a "Good evening, gentlemen." My classmate was petrified and wanted to be anywhere but there. I returned the greeting.

"Do you play?" I asked the gentleman.

"When I ache I do," he replied.

My friend immediately stated that we must be getting back.

Naively, I asked the bearded man, "What is there to ache about?" Thinking I lived a pretty difficult life.

The gentleman responded, "Life, love, regrets, take your pick."

Now I had learned early on that conversations with older persons lead to an education. And somehow I was not afraid to talk this stranger. He was amazingly dignified, well spoken and was not looking to bother anyone. He asked nothing of my friend and me. He only offered a salutation.

I turned to the bearded man and asked again if he played the clarinet. He lifted the clarinet and played a sweet, powerful melody that immediately made me sit down on the planter opposite him.

When he was finished, I asked, "What are you doing out here? Taking a walk or something?"

"Yeah. A very long walk my friend," he laughingly replied. "My name is Jedadiah," he said.

"Nice to meet you," I replied.

"Your friend looks nervous," he said.

"Don't worry he is always nervous," I replied.

Jedadiah laughed and said to my friend, "Don't worry. You have your whole life to be nervous."

"Where did you learn to play?" I asked.

"In France," he replied.

"In France?" my friend asked incredulously.

"Yes, France," Jedadiah replied.

"We were looking to get a bite to eat. Is there anything open?" I asked.

"There is a diner around the corner," Jedadiah replied.

"Can we bring you anything?" I asked.

"I would like hot coffee, but I have very little money and I need to save it." Jedadiah replied gently. "But thank you very kindly for asking," he said with a soft smile.

"Why don't you join us?" I blurted out. With this my classmate shot me a "are you insane?" look.

"I would like to but as I said, I can't." Jedadiah said.

"I would love to hear more about France," I said. "It's my treat."

Jedadiah sized up the request. What harm could two high school kids pose? He said, "Okay. If you are sure it is okay."

We proceeded around the corner to the coffee shop and were given piercing stares upon our entrance. In the light, I suddenly became aware that Jedadiah was tatterly dressed yet exuded an air of dignity and respect. And Jedadiah was homeless. I had never seen a homeless person before.

I suddenly was not hungry. I had very little money but told Jedadiah to order anything he wanted. It was on me and I wanted to hear all about France. At first, Jedadiah resisted. But hunger ruled out and he soon acquiesced. Jedadiah ordered black coffee, eggs, ham, biscuits and grits.

Jedadiah then began to regale us with stories of his life. Jedadiah was a World War II veteran. How he decided to stay in France after the war because of how he felt the French better treated his people. How he studied art and opera. Even was an understudy in a production of "Porgie and Bess" in France. And how he played the clarinet for extra money.

For me, it was an amazing conversation. It was an eye opening conversation. And just as the evening began, it abruptly ended. My classmate and I found ourselves out in front of the café wishing Jedadiah all of the best.

"Where will you sleep tonight?" I asked Jedadiah.

"I have enough for one night at the Church Mission several blocks from here." Jedadiah replied.

"Good night and thank you both for letting an old man ramble on," Jedadiah said sadly.

"We enjoyed talking with you," my classmate stuttered out. This time I gave him a look of shock because it seemed as though the only people who conversed were Jedadiah and myself.

As Jedadiah turned and walked away, I suddenly felt an urge to do something for him. "Quick, how much money do you have on you?" I asked my friend. I knew good and well that he had emergency money (he came from a wealthy family).

It took a full block before I could convince my classmate to give up his emergency $100 bill. I had to promise to pay him back as soon as possible. I rushed back to Jedadiah playing the clarinet and handed him the money.

"I can't let you do this," Jedadiah insisted. "Thank you but no thank you."

"I want you to have this," I said. "Please don't consider it as anything other than my thanking you for a great dinner conversation," I said. "Please, I wouldn't insult you with pity"

Jedadiah reluctantly reached out and took our offering, thanked us profusely and wandered off into the night.

Now it is a dangerous world these days and I am not preaching that any one should take people on the street to dinner. I am simply saying I had one of the best dinner conversations that I have ever had.

Remember that in this coming new year, sometimes the company you invite for dinner is as important as the meal itself. Happy New Year.


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