This weekend a stranger passed me a note. I was between songs, on stage in front of an audience. I’ll tell you what it said in a moment.
First, let’s talk about that stage. It’s small – not really a stage at all. It’s a patch of wood-printed vinyl in the corner of The Carrot Community Arts Coffeehouse. This little coffeehouse lives in the heart of city’s most complicated, conflicted and wildly beautiful neighbourhood – Alberta Avenue. The neighbourhood my family moved out of a year ago for complicated and conflicted reasons.
It’s Saturday morning, just over an hour before my set. I rush my amp and guitars into the car and head north to unload my gear in a makeshift parking spot before I get in trouble. All three loads I dodge hellos in my hurry. Then I park the car as close as I can, which is two blocks away.
My early afternoon gig is part of the Kaleido Family Arts Festival. This festival is nearly impossible to describe because it has to be experienced. Each year is full of surprises. Each year is overwhelming in its own way.
Alberta Avenue sits on the edge of Edmonton’s inner city. This is the neighbourhood where young artists and aging hippies live alongside drug dealers and big families crammed into tiny houses. This is the neighbourhood where sex trade workers share the streets with skinny young men carrying bottle bags on tiny bikes. But the streets are closed this weekend.
Four blocks close to cars for three days and we a taste a bit of car-free Kingdom come. Beauty dances with grit. Guerrilla art-making replaces illicit money-making. The crowds are a mosaic of cultures and classes. Breakdancers in spandex fill one corner while a xylophone plunks out “The Final Countdown” in the shadow of belly dancers two blocks over. It is messy and noisy and bright and perfectly imperfect.
As I walk back from my car I’m pulled towards a jazz band in a back alley. I sit and listen and can think of no better way to prepare for a show.
Later, I’ll bump into a dozen friends and accidentally network. I’ll watch African dancers stand three-men tall one each others’ shoulders. I’ll talk microphones with a folk musician waiting in line for green onion cakes. I’ll wander into someone’s front yard for a concert and the performer will offer me her sunglasses so I don’t have to squint. But now it’s getting close to 1 PM and I need to get my bow tie on.
My crowd starts out thin but grows as I play. Soon I arrive at my cover of “Summer of ’69”. The Facebook feedback on my changes to this classic rocker has not always been kind. Mixed in with the positive, negative comments range from “This guy sings like a turtle SLOW” to “Just barfed in my mouth.” Ouch. Early on I decided to take theses ego-slaps in stride by reading some from the stage before I perform the song. One of the comments I read this time is “RU f***in serious?”
I get the laughs I want, play my version to applause and move on. A few songs later when I stop to tune my guitar a woman gets up to leave, but walks towards me first. And now we’re back to the note.
I’d guess she’s near her seventies. She hands me a folded napkin and says something I can’t hear. I lean in and she tells me that the next time someone says “WTF” here are some replies I can use. Some other things WTF can mean.
I laugh and put the note in my back pocket for later.
Here are her suggestions.
“What the fun”
“What the fabulous fun”
“What the fantastic fun”
What the fun indeed. This is one of the strangest and most beautiful little gifts I’ve received from a listener. This woman – vibrant with art and life in her later years – this woman thinks about the performer on stage and how it must feel to read hateful words. She sees through the comedy to the heart that hurts. And she offers a little note of encouragement.
I read something deeper in her little note.
“Keep on going. You are doing good work. There are beautiful and surprising people everywhere but you won’t meet them if you don’t show up. Don’t be stopped by hate and fear. Rush towards the love. And remember to smile.”