It was a typical rainy Portland spring night, cool but not cold, breezy but not windy. Harm had secured the dry recessed doorway of a Covid-closed barber shop on Sandy Boulevard for the night. He sat on a double layer of cardboard with his long legs stretched out in front of him staring out blankly at the passing traffic. He held his scruffy, worse-for-the-wear red backpack next to him, one of only two possessions he still had from his foster home days. It had been given to him by a caring social worker for his eighth-grade graduation. The other was a four-blade pocketknife he’d stolen when he was in sixth grade. He couldn’t imagine surviving without either one.
His usual hunger had been placated by a beef burrito and a green chili enchilada he’d bought with a generous handout from the driver of a shiny black Audi who must have felt compassion when their eyes met at the traffic light at MLK and Broadway. For the first time in a long while he felt at ease—a full stomach, a dry place to sleep, a couple of bucks in his pocket. But that contentment faded as he started thinking of what the next day might bring—another struggle to survive, unable to see any way out of his dismal existence, no hope for a better life.
Wanting to dispel those negative thoughts, he opened the backpack to retrieve the pint of whisky he kept for just such occasions. Not seeing the bottle, he grabbed the harmonica case that was near the top of the pack to move it out of the way. For no special reason he paused a moment, then unzipped it and took the first harp in the row out of its slot and looked at it closely. A capital “A” was stamped at one end, and the name “SUZUKI” was printed on the bottom. Japanese. Must be a good one, he thought. He counted ten holes and wondered how they were organized. He held it up to his mouth and blew into the middle holes, like he'd done in the laurel hedge a few days before, and again he liked the sound. Then he blew into the left side and moved harp past his lips until he got to the other end where the pitch was higher. When he drew is breath in, the pitch was different than when blowing out. Then it dawned on him in a flash: different holes, breath in or out, different sounds, the way to make music. He quickly took out one of the other harmonicas, one with a “C” on it and repeated what he’d done with the “A” harp. Same progression of notes, only a higher pitch. Over the following couple of hours, he tried the rest of the harps and quickly figured out the differences in sound as the letters progressed from A to G, and how in each case the holes were arranged in increasing pitch from left to right. With that realization, he was hooked, determined to learn how to play like a pro. Later in his quest to become a harp player, he'd learn the letters designated the key in which the instrument was tuned, and that the notes were always arrange as specific scales. But at that moment what was important to him was that he had discovered a possible path to a better future—to become a musician. Maybe it was naïve, but at least it provided a much-needed ray of hope.
For the next few months Harm stayed out of trouble and worked hard to accumulate as much cash as he could, panhandling six or more hours a day, hunting for cans and bottles when not at his MLK corner, even doing a few building-site clean-up jobs he'd stumbled into. Eventually he saved enough for a of decent set clothes and almost-new shoes from a thrift shop and, for the first time in a long while, a haircut. During all this time, even as tired as he might be, he worked with the harps every night, figuring out on his own how play simple tunes, tunes that came back to him from his childhood when he’d been left alone with nothing but TV cartoons, most with music tracks teeming with unforgettable jingles and melodies. Gradually, as he became able to mimic. more of these tunes, his confidence grew. Then one night he played something that sounded different than just cartoon music. It was a little bit sad, maybe a bit mournful, but definitely something of his own. Something he felt. And with that little melody, even as amateurish as it was, he knew he was ready for the next step in his plan.