SideWalk Ghosts / Interview 143: The Parable Of Charley

“In Japan they take their tea very seriously… In fact there are tea masters. That’s what they do, they serve tea, very gracefully… It’s an art.

“The tea master ran afoul with a sword master, and the sword master challenged him to a duel.

“In fear, the tea master goes to another sword master and asks to be trained in exchange for a tea ceremony.

“So they start the lessons. The tea master struggles; the sword master cannot take the terrible progress of the tea master and requests that, in taking a break, the tea master prepare the promised tea.

“The tea master sets and serves the tea, and the sword master is taken by the grace of the ceremony.

“Seeing this, the sword master instructs the tea master to use the sword as if he was serving tea.

“Listening, the tea master begins to learn with grace and power.

“The sword master is very proud of the of the tea master saying ‘I have taught you all that I can.’

“The offended sword master arrives to fight the tea master, but as the tea master yields his sword, the sword master is chastened by the art of swordsmanship the tea master demonstrates, and in an act of humility, he puts down his sword.

“‘I know you are a tea master, but did not know you are a sword master’ he says.

“They part with respect, honor and life.”

A story as told by today’s friend, musician and colon cancer survivor, Charley.

The moral? Per Charley “Anything that you do you can apply to everything you do.”

We’ll let Charley’s parable and moral hang for a bit. For now, I’d like to tell you about the experience of meeting him.

To begin, Charley is no visual stranger to me. Over the years I have passed him time and time again, most often seeing him performing at a shopping center parking lot in Woodland Hills. His talent is full-bodied, and the music he rings out with a modest penny whistle is world-class.

I’ve always been fascinated to know his story, and in passing by Charley’s arrangement of Celtic sounds this evening,  I am wholly captured to stop my car and drop my walls in introducing myself to this musical master.

I feel a little self-conscious interrupting Charley as he plays.

For one thing, the music is great and I just want to listen.

Secondly, it is his livelihood. Charlie is a street performer, obviously supporting himself on the respect of those who stop to enjoy his playing. Yet, as enjoyable as his score is, and looking past his focused posture to craft, I butt into his melody.

Putting down his whistle, Charley is gracious (like a tea master) in accepting me. He extends humility to look beyond his own boundaries (like the chastened sword master) by not negatively reacting to my interruption.

With focused eyes, Charley suggests, “I was just going to buy myself a beer. We can take some photos behind the liquor store across the street. There is a lot of light there.”

At first I think, “Not so sure I want to be out of sight from main stream public.”

From where we are standing, I scope the store Charley is suggesting, it’s right next to a magazine stand that I have frequented often, and he is right, very visible and well illuminated. Plus, the feeling that I get from Charley is very safe and united. We agree to make the move.

The experience proves to be, in the easiest of words, “A wonderment.”

As I mentioned, “Charley is a world-class musician.” He asks, “What can I play for you?”

We bounce a few thoughts for a while, things like how he started in music, why he plays wind instruments, our views on the history of music, and favorite shared musical artists.

Per contemporary flute performers, we sync, “It’s got to be Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.”

“Wonderment,” I said. Here we are, Charley sitting, perched on a stair step stage of worn concrete, and, on the cue of Jethro Tull, he rips into a set of Anderson wind solos, hitting them with quality that would propel a full-blown Tull concert… The wonderment… it is for my eyes, or should I say ears, only.

Who would have ever realized the talent that exists in such an understated individual and be found at a place as unlikely as a grocery store parking lot.

Charley’s life has been a homage to music. “It’s what I’ve always done,” he glows.

Curious to know how he has survived, I probe. “I’ve worked as a studio musician, done street performance and have worked live shows with many bands. A lot of people know me on the streets.” Charley describes his life.

On the streets?… What Charley is referring to is his network, but by his appearance he might be pre-judged as homeless. I inquire, “Do people assume that you are homeless.”

Charley gives me several levels in answering my query. “I have been homeless, and it was by my choice. I did not want to do the suit and tie thing and to live simple. That’s why I did it.”

He continues, “I did that for a few years, and learned that not all people are homeless for the same reason. Some, like me, choose to be on the streets. Others have to because of a loss, and others have mental problems. But the big thing I learned: not to judge anyone as many judged us.”

Several years ago Charley was diagnosed with colon cancer. His story is good, “I’m a cancer survivor.” He tells me.

“But from that point I could no longer live without a home,” he adds.

In steps Charley’s caregiver and roommate, Judy (not pictured), who answers a mystery for me. That mystery? “Other than buying a beer, why are we sitting behind the liquor store? (other than the great acoustics of the walls around us.) ” Turns out that this is the selected spot where Charley and Judy have coordinated to meet.

Performance over, we move onto deeper matters: healthcare.

Supported by Judy (by the way, she is also a cancer survivor), Charley takes a stand. “The healthcare system is all screwed up. We need less politicians in healthcare and more doctors in charge.”

“Can you share any stories regarding your experience?” I inquire.

With grace, Charley responds, “My cancer treatment was difficult and I have to say this… but before I do, know that I am not being judgmental…the medical system is overwhelmed with illegal aliens.

I’ll always remember going for help. The line in front of me was huge. I understand that all people deserve medical treatment. Yet I’ve paid into the system for years, and I think I deserved a priority, and to be put to the back of the line, under an ankle twist or a small boo-boo was difficult to handle. I was fighting Cancer!”

Charley does not wear this statement as a badge of honor, or say it with any malice, just a sincere request for the politicians to take a look at their policy in regards to prioritizing the healthcare available to struggling American Citizens.

On a lighter note, I ask Charley on his wishes for the future. “I should have guessed this one.”

“I hope music comes around. It would be nice to see people thinking about melody.”

Charlie hums a very cool jazz improvisation and continues, “Away from Rap and Heavy Metal.”

He makes a guttural interpretation of the sound and lyrics of a violent Rap tune… “It’s got to eventually come around!”

Readers, if you ever find yourself near the Ralphs supermarket, corner of Topanga Canyon and Ventura Blvd., and see Charley, the music man, wandering the lot, do yourself a favor and stop to listen, you will not regret it.

One last note (forgive the musical pun)… Tip him big!

Oh, I almost forgot… My take on the moral of Charley’s parable: “Anything that you do you can apply to everything you do.” Whatever is in your heart, listen to it and have the courage to magnify it. In doing so you give service not only to yourself, but also to the world around you. We are all unique and have so much potential to share. Forgive and understand.

For Charley, he uses music as a gateway to the universe around him. Perhaps his purpose is to bring joy to those who listen. I know he uplifted me this night.

For me, that purpose: “To better understand the world around me and to share what I find out.”  There,  I’ve humbled myself a little and let you in.

That purpose is greater than what I do. Sure, I’m a working photographer and filmmaker, starting to even become an emerging writer and speaker of some type. But the bottom line take away, as Charley gives us in his parable: “Do we take what we have been given, or blessed with, and develop it for a positive outcome?”

As did the tea and sword masters, “They part (or perhaps, interacted) with respect, honor and life.”

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for today’s sharing, Richard. I enjoy them each one, perhaps in part because your encounters seem so in synch with what I am going through myself. Your writing reminds again and again, we are all connected…..Blessings….


  2. Jerry Kane says:

    Charley is the “tea master”. I have known Charley for 26 yeaars and for the past 15 years
    I have talked to him almost daily. Charley continues to inspire me with his common sense
    and wisdom. Apparently he practices what he preaches and has touched me in a way that
    makes me want to “lay down my sword”.


  3. Alexandra says:

    Since you are shooting mainly through 2012, and since 2012 is a leap year, wont it actually be three-hundred and sixty-six days of interviewing, photographing and making friends from strangers? I love your blog, and extra day of photographs and an interview because of the leap year would be a blessing 🙂


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