A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.—Maya Angelou
On October 1st 2016, I walked down Mass Ave next to the Central Square T stop and found a smiley, old man sitting on a bench, singing I Feel Good by James Brown. He gently bobbed, craned his neck back, and belted. He really let it rip for the so in so good.
I feel good. I knew that I would now.
I feel good. I knew that I would now.
SO good. SO good. I got you.
Whenever he saw someone approaching, he would pull his head back up, make eye contact, stop singing for a moment, and say hi. He was part showman and part Central Square ambassador. I said hi. We talked for an hour.
The smiley fella’s name was Bob. During our hour together that day, 15 people stopped to say hi to Bob. Some people knew him. Others didn’t but felt a similar gravitational, loving pull towards him that I felt. Most people called him Bob or Bob, The Mayor or just The Mayor. His smile was big. His laugh was bigger. His vault of stories—and generosity and excitement to share them— was biggest.
Bob told me about his singing: “I sing my own songs. I sing about what I see and what makes me happy. There’s so much to be happy about. We’re so lucky. There’s big buildings and trees and nice people everywhere. I also sing a little James Brown, a little Lionel Richie. I’d say my three favorite singers are James Brown, Lionel Richie, and myself. Those are my favorites.”
He told me about going dancing with Malcolm X “back in Harlem. Malcolm thought he was a better dancer, but I was really the better dancer. We had fun. I would send him toothbrushes when he was in prison. He was a very loyal friend and a really honest, loving person.”
He told me about babysitting P Diddy when P Diddy was a kid growing up next door in Harlem while his mom was in rehab.
He told me about serving in the Korean War.
He told me about his Ethiopian heritage.
He told me about his car wash company: “I wash cars by appointment, and I wash my own car every day and pick up my daughter. And I’m smiling the whole time ‘cause my car looks shiny and new. And my daughter asks me if I’ve been smoking the reefer ‘cause I’m so happy and smiley. But I’m just happy.”
And he told me about his Five Keys To Feeling Good All The Time:
Everyone’s always saying, ‘Bob, you can’t REALLY be 81, can you?!’ But I AM. Black don’t crack, baby. That, and I’ve got my five keys to feeling good all the time: 1. Laughter. You gotta laugh. I laugh a lot – with other people and by myself. I watch a lot of stand-up comedy: Chris Rock, Chappelle, all those guys. And I’ve been a Knicks fan my whole life, so I really need to know how to laugh. 2. I eat right and only have one drink a week – every Friday at dinner. That’s it. I’m a tea drinker. 3. I talk to family on the phone every day and have dinner with my daughter and her family every weekend. I love it. That carries me through the week. 4. I ride my bike and walk everywhere. I feel great. And number five is laughter. That’s where the magic is.
Bob was then and is now a pure, receptive storyteller: his stories are well-worn and personal and incomparably cool, but they always surface organically depending on who the story is for and how their (very warm , very two-sided) conversation’s flowing—on benches in Central Square, next to Harvard Square bike racks after visiting his dad’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery. He’s as joyful telling stories and sorting through his memory’s archives as he is listening to others. He’s done a lot and seen a lot and lived a lot, and his stories (and songs) and are his way of saying, this is me and what matters to me and who matters to me and what excites me. But what about you?! I want to learn.
In the 15 months since we first met, Bob’s gone from Entertaining, Wise, One-Time Photo Subject to Entertaining, Wise, Weekly Photo Subject to All-Around Great Pal. Every few months, we trade books. Every few weeks, we talk sports—on the phone or in the game room of his senior center.
Last week, I bumped into Bob, unplanned, on Mass Ave in Central Square. He was singing to himself—his own song it sounded like— and bouncing down the sidewalk. He told me that three older folks in his building are hoping to make a video of him, singing, dancing, walking, biking, generally holding court along Mass Ave, to have as entertainment for their TV room— and he asked if I wanted to be behind the camera.
I didn’t say YES as much as instinctively hug him and ask when we could start.
“Anytime! I’ve got nothing planned— other than singing my own song.”