by Damon Nomad
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Inspirational · #2292433
A musician's pride cost him dearly.
| Spirit of West Side Mission Word Count 4900|
By Damon Nomad
Rupert's pride cost him dearly, he told me the story of how it nearly killed him. This is my account of the tale as I heard it from him twenty-five years ago. I had been a reporter for a while before I heard the story and I kept notes. This is the first time I have written it all down, using some literary license to reflect what I think the dialog would have been and the look and feel of the settings.
# # # #
Rupert's difficult times started with his rebellious attitude toward his father. Rupert was the only child in an upper-middle-class family. He knew they were well off but did not appreciate it at the time. During his senior year in high school, his parents gave him an expensive clarinet, as a birthday gift. He was a gifted player and had been playing since he was ten years old. His father was pushing him to be classically trained in a university program. Rupert wanted to study jazz in a public program in the city center, where professional musicians volunteered their time.
One evening things boiled over in the family room in the suburban home on the south side of Chicago. His father gave him an ultimatum, Rupert was eighteen and an adult in the eyes of the law. If he wanted to study music after high school graduation, he would only get financial support if he studied classical music at a university. Rupert called his father an uncle Tom and stormed out of the house. Things were never the same between them after that night and his mother could not broker a peace.
Rupert refused his father's demands and left home a few months after high school graduation. All he had was a few hundred dollars and a rucksack with clothes and his clarinet in its case. His mind was set on becoming a jazz musician as a journeyman. He started playing on the streets and one-night gigs in clubs. After a few years he was a regular in groups at lower-class clubs. His big break came when the head of Jake's Smooth Notes approached him to join his ensemble band. The next fifteen years were pretty good to Rupert, a series of groups playing at better and better clubs. He was making a decent living, but seemingly never satisfied with his current situation. Moving on to a different band every few years.
He never mended fences with his father. He had not talked to his parents in twenty years, he thought they should make the first move. His father had wronged him and his mother stood by and watched, that's how he saw it. He read about his father's death in an obituary. Rupert could not overcome his pride and bitterness to reach out to his mother. She died less than two years later.
Rupert was in his early forties when his mother passed away and all he had in life was his music. He had never made enough room in his heart for a wife and there was no other family. He didn't have any close friends and no real acquaintances outside the Chicago jazz scene. He was doing well with his music, but he felt like he deserved more. He started pushing the founder of the band he was in to make him a partner. Leon had founded Brass Tones fifteen years before they brought on Rupert with his clarinet. They met at the bar early one evening a few hours before their show, Rupert wasn't backing down. "Clyde is a partner. Why not me?"
Leon sighed as he swirled his tonic water and ice in his glass. "Clyde was with me from the beginning. We played on street corners around Chi-town when you were still in grade school."
Rupert pointed a finger at Leon. "He's old, dude is old. I bring energy to the music. You can build an entire set around me."
"Where is this coming from Rupert? You are good, but you ain't great. None of us are great. We aren't getting offers from recording studios. We play good clubs and make good money. We are an ensemble group, we all get our runs. We don't build our music around one guy. You know that."
A few months later Rupert confronted Leon after they wrapped up their last set. Leon was alone in a booth when Rupert set down across from him. Rupert leaned forward his arms crossed on the table. "You either make me a partner or I'm walking."
He studied Rupert for a moment. "You got another gig lined up? Someone willing to bring you in as a partner?"
"I'm gonna go solo. My name means something in Chicago jazz."
Leon was twenty years older than Rupert and had been playing jazz in Chicago for nearly forty years. He raised an eyebrow and exhaled with a slow sigh. "Your name means something as part of the groups you been in. Solo jazz clarinet in an upscale Chicago club? How many of them you see? How many solo jazz players on any instrument do you see? That is for world-class talent. People on tour with major recording studios behind them. Pride is gonna destroy you."
Rupert's eyes flared with anger. His father had said the same thing to him. "You gonna make me a partner or not?"
Two years later Rupert was playing solo, not in a club but back on the streets. A few clubs had given him a shot at gigs. Most of them lasted a few weeks, some just a few days. The longest was almost two months. He burned through his savings in about eighteen months and had been living on the street since the spring. He damaged his reputation by the abrupt way he quit his group and tried to go it on his own. He could not get a gig with any groups. At least none that paid more than donations and he felt he could do better by himself.
Rupert was playing at a spot in Garfield Park in late November. There were still a few people who came to the park on warm afternoons. He had been bouncing between Garfield, Humboldt, and Douglas Park during spring and summer. He saw Willy coming his way, the guy moved around the same three parks playing chess on a portable table he carried in his backpack. He had been a chess prodigy as a young kid but dropped out of high school when he started using drugs. He was clean now, living on the streets and making money by hustling chess.
Willy watched from a bench, giving a thumbs up as Rupert finished. "That was good, really good." He was the only audience Rupert had at the moment. The park looked to be nearly empty.
"Thanks, Willy." Rupert reached into the clarinet case and picked up the little bit of paper money he had gotten. "Not many people out."
Willy got up and shuffled close to Rupert. "You never been on the streets in winter have you?"
Rupert shrugged as he added the bills to his bankroll in the inner pocket of his jacket. "No, doesn't seem too complicated. I will get a few extra layers of clothes. Hit the overnight coffee shops and bus stations. Ride the L on the twenty-four-hour lines. That should cover it."
Willy waved his hands. "No man, you need a plan. Scout out a few of the good shelters like West Side Mission. Pay attention to how the weather is doing. If it's gonna stay above freezing you can move around, hit a coffee shop, sleep at a bus station, or L station, or try riding the Blue L. If it's going frigid forget that. You need to get in line early and act like a gentleman. You can die out here. If you end up walking around, you will get so cold you go crazy. In the morning you gonna be a dead popsicle. Happened to two guys I know."
Rupert shook his head with a frown. "A homeless shelter. Sounds desperate. Taking charity like that."
Willy's eyes went wide open with surprise. "You kidding me? Swallow your pride and get in line. You have been living the easy life since spring, lots of money coming in and weather that is easy to survive. I ain't ashamed and they treat you with respect at the good places like West Side."
It was a few days after New Year's Day, there was a small silver Christmas tree with cheap decorations in the window of the worn-down coffee shop. Rupert's coffee cup was nearly empty and the small carafe was exhausted. He had less than fifteen dollars in his pockets. The waitress was headed his way again.
"You got to order something or you need to leave. The night manager is gonna come out from the back office in a bit. He already warned me. A pot of coffee and a donut, two fifty. No need for a tip." Her eyes started to tear up. "Sorry. I know it's bad out there."
Rupert waved a hand. "It's okay. It's your job." He had been watching the television news, they weren't exaggerating calling it a frigid blizzard. Near white-out conditions and the temperature was five below. Expected to drop to ten below by morning, twenty-five below with the wind chill. He put down money for the coffee and two donuts he had already had and a fifty-cent tip for the waitress. Rupert had ignored Willy's advice, he could not bring himself to go to a shelter. Felt like he was better than that and he was convinced he could manage.
Even with his hood and toboggan hat, the blast of frigid wind stung his face like tiny needles. He walked north toward the L station just a few blocks up. A few hours later he woke up to a transit cop kicking him on the shoe. "That's it, buddy. It's against regulations to round trip, this is the second time I have seen you come through this station sound asleep."
Rupert was half tempted to take a swing at the cop, just so he would go to jail. But he decided that wasn't a smart course of action. He figured it must be nearly midnight as he came out of the station, he recognized the general area. He wasn't too far from Douglas Park. There was an all-night bus station a few blocks over from the opposite side of the park. He could try that for a few hours. He got disoriented in the snowstorm and ended up going in the wrong direction for thirty minutes. After nearly an hour, his hands and feet were numb. He was just at the edge of Douglas Park, it would take him another hour to get to the bus station.
He was starting to shiver when he saw a park bench with a waste basket next to it. He thought he might have some matches in his backpack, he could make a small fire in the basket. He knew it was a desperate move, but he was out of options. He was afraid to look at his fingers and toes once he got indoors, fearing they may be frostbitten. He sat down on the bench and closed his eyes. He just needed a moment to collect his thoughts and relax.
Rupert smelt coffee and heard the hum of a fan. As he opened his eyes, he saw he was in a small trailer of some type. The fan was an electrical space heater warming the small room. Someone was moving around at the opposite end of the trailer. A large man with his back to Rupert was pouring a cup of coffee. When the big man turned around, Rupert realized he was a city police officer.
The cop looked toward Rupert. "Hey your awake, how about a cup of coffee."
Rupert sat up on the sofa he had been laying on and took the blanket off. He wiggled his toes in his shoes, they felt fine. He looked at his fingers they were a normal color and were not the least bit numb. His whole body felt warm and rested, better than he had felt in days. His first thought was that he had set a fire and was under arrest, which was fine with him at the moment. "Am I in trouble for something?"
The officer moved closer handing Rupert a cup. He took a seat on a stool and took a sip from his cup of coffee. "You were in the park after it was closed for the day, but I think we can let it slide. You probably went unconscious just before I found you, early stages of hypothermia. This mobile station was close by, just fired up the heater and coffee pot. You have been out for maybe thirty minutes."
Rupert had seen the small mobile police stations in the park during the spring and summer. He took a sip of coffee, the man was a bit overweight for a cop, but not obese. A few years younger than Rupert and fair-skinned with a few freckles on his nose. He had short reddish brown hair and bright green eyes. "Thank you, officer. My name is Rupert."
The man smiled nodding to Rupert. "Officer Shawn Murphy. Yeah I know . . . Irish name, but I don't look it right." He chuckled as he pointed to himself. "Fourth-generation Irish American, third-generation cop."
As they finished their coffee, Murphy got up from the stool and turned off the space heater. "I need to get back on patrol. He picked up a small duffel bag. There are some summer sausages and canned goods in here. Nothing that needs cooking. Stuff I carry around to snack on when I am on back shift. You take it."
Rupert got up, buttoning his coat and putting on his toboggan hat. "I couldn't do that. It should be me giving you something." He shrugged looking down, he didn't have anything to give.
Murphy held the bag out. "Please take it. You need it more than me at the moment."
Rupert relented and took the bag and picked up his big rucksack with his few possessions, most importantly a case holding his clarinet.
As Shawn locked the trailer back up on the outside, he gestured to some lights toward the southeast. "Looks like you got a break in the weather, you know the area? That's Mount Sinai Hospital. Go down to sixteenth avenue, take a left, and then over to Western Avenue. You'll see the West Side Mission. Go straight there, do that for me."
Rupert nodded in agreement, holding out his hand. "Yea I know where we are. Thank you again."
They shook hands and Shawn patted him on the shoulder. "Remember what the good book says. In humility value others above yourselves."
Rupert puzzled over that last comment as he walked away. When he got to the edge of the park, he turned around to wave goodbye. Murphy was nowhere in sight. His patrol car must have been in the opposite direction.
Rupert woke up the next morning in the shelter, amazed he was able to get a spot for the night. He had breakfast and volunteered to help clean dishes in the kitchen, he figured he might see if he could stay for a few days. After a shower he sat down on the cot and opened the bag that Shawn Murphy had given him, surprised to find a Bible was also inside. An old well worn Bible, Murphy must have forgotten it was in the bag. He opened it up to where the red velvet permanent ribbon had been at Philippians 2. He looked at the tip of the ribbon and silently read the verse. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. He smiled and put the Bible back into the duffle bag, Officer Murphy knew his Bible. He needed to get this back to him, he was surprised to see there was no name written anywhere on the inside or outside.
Rupert knew which precinct covered the park and this part of near west Chicago. The weather had improved so he headed over there in the early afternoon. He found the desk sergeant and said he had something for a patrol officer, Shawn Murphy. The sergeant double-checked the duty roster to make sure. "No officer Shawn Murphy in this precinct."
"How you spelling it?"
The desk officer stared with a hint of contempt. "I know the cops in this precinct. How do you know this officer? What is this about?"
Rupert gave the basic story of Murphy helping him by giving him some shelter in one of the mobile stations in the park. "I don't want to get him in any trouble, the guy probably saved my life."
The sergeant looked agitated. "I don't know what kind of scam you are pulling. We didn't have any officers out on foot in Douglas Park last night. Why would an officer be on foot in the park in the middle of a blizzard? Those mobile stations are all in storage in the garages for the winter. I'm not in the mood for any games. Move on before you make yourself a problem."
Rupert didn't want any problems so he walked away. Maybe Murphy was from another precinct. But why would he be in Douglas Park in the middle of a snowstorm? When he got back to the main lobby, he saw a group of pictures on the wall. He stopped and moved closer when he saw Murphy's face. The name plate below the framed photo confirmed it, Officer Shawn Patrick Murphy. He froze as he read the text below the name. Killed in the Line of Duty - Vicinity of Douglas Park. He looked at the picture again, maybe it was his father. Rupert was sure it was the man he had seen yesterday. He read the description of how Murphy was killed and then wandered from the lobby in a state of confusion. Shawn Murphy had been killed nearly thirty years earlier. He put himself between two gunmen and a tour group from overseas. Rupert sat down on a bench and took the Bible from his backpack. He held the Bible in his hands and closed his eyes saying a silent prayer, promising to change the direction of his life. He was not so proud that he would ignore an angel of the Lord sent to save him.
# # # #
That is the story pretty much as Rupert told it to me twenty-five years ago. Why has it taken me so many years to write it down? That's a fair question, that deserves a bit of explanation. Rupert told me his story in a tired old coffee shop just a few blocks north of the South Branch of the Chicago River. The wind was howling outside, and a blast of arctic air came in every time the door opened. The place was packed full even though it was half past midnight when Rupert came to my booth. I looked up from my notebook when he asked if he could sit in the open spot opposite me.
I didn't want company, but had no reason to say no and did not want to look like a racist bigot. I was not quite thirty-five and Rupert looked to be in his mid-sixties. His afro was close-cropped with a good bit of gray and he was clean-shaven. His clothes looked old and worn, but very clean. He was bright-eyed with a hint of crow's feet, obviously not an addict or a drunk. I grunted with a nod and some wisecrack about not owning the place or some other impertinence.
He sat his coffee cup on the table and used a small carafe to fill my half-empty cup before he took a seat. He asked about my notebook, I said it was a journal of sorts without looking up. He asked if I knew what was at the root of everyone's problems. I wasn't in the mood for a conversation or a lecture and kept scribbling something in my notebook. I remember exactly what he said next. "Pride is at the core of those problems, like a cancer of the soul. Bringing hardship, sadness, and bitterness." It stung me, like a slap in the face. I knew my arrogance and pride had cost me my job as a reporter nearly four months earlier. And kicked out of my apartment just a few days before that night. I refused to accept the money offered by my brother to help me make it until I could find a job. Homeless for the first time in my life, afraid but full of pride. He saw he had my attention when I looked up from my notebook. He began his story. "My pride nearly killed me." I barely looked up from the notebook as I took detailed notes, driven by what he said about pride.
He stood up when he finished and he held up an old Bible. As he buttoned his coat, he focused his gaze on me. "Humble yourself before the Lord." He put on his hat and gloves. "Humility comes before honor." He smiled with a courteous nod. "You should find someplace safe to sleep tonight and accept some help to get back on your feet. West Side Mission is still there it is one of the oldest but still one of the best in Chicago. It's just a few blocks north of here." I didn't know how he knew that I needed help, but he did. I guessed that he knew the look, the same look he had decades earlier.
I didn't know what to say as he prepared to leave. It had been more than a decade since I had been to a church or read a Bible. I had stopped believing in God and certainly did not believe that Rupert's life had been saved by a seraph in the guise of a long-dead policeman years ago. I figured it was a fable he used to try and put people on the right path. He seemed so honest, sincere, and sober. Before he walked away, I found my voice. "Did you come back to music after that winter?"
His face brightened but not with pleasure, but a look of calm serenity. "Not professionally, I found a better path." After he left, I realized he had left the Bible behind in his seat. Surprised to find that the old book didn't have a name on it, inside or out. I took his advice and headed to the shelter, grateful to find there was still some space. After reading the posted rules in the dimly lit lobby I noticed two Bible quotes on old wooden panels. One on each side of the door leading to the men's sleeping room. One had James 4:10 - Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up. The other panel had Proverbs 18:2 - Before a downfall the heart is prideful, but humility comes before honor. Obviously, Rupert knew this place well.
A few months later I was back on my feet. The first step was making heartfelt apologies to my bosses at the newspaper. They were gracious enough to give me another chance. My brother gave me some financial support to help me. I hit up the editor with the idea of someone doing a public interest story on Rupert, the angle of his struggles as a musician, and my suspicion he might be a volunteer with one of the oldest shelters in the city. But it wasn't in my scope of reporting. He said I could do some background work. If it sounded promising he would hand it off to someone. I also wanted to track down Rupert to return his Bible and thank him for his message and his thoughtful parable about pride.
I got an appointment with a priest that was the director of the shelter and met him there on a beautiful spring day. He had an office just off the lobby, my first time there since the three days I spent there in the depth of winter. I had never seen him and just identified myself as a reporter doing some background for a possible human interest story that might have a connection to the shelter. He listened as I started my sketch of a man named Rupert and his struggles as a musician. The gray-haired priest waved for me to stop before I could finish. He said many people at the shelter knew about Rupert. "Follow me."
I followed him to the other end of the lobby where there was a small prayer room. I had not been to the spot during my short stay. No interest in prayer or meditation. The plaque was on the wall just outside the room, a bronze plate on a thick wood base mounted to the wall. A short story about a fire at the shelter twenty years earlier and how a former musician saved dozens of people that evening. He died as he made a last trip into the flames looking for other people. He was the only death that night. A framed picture of him was beside the plaque above a glass case housing his clarinet. It was the face of the man I had met in the coffee shop months earlier. He was in his early or mid-forties in the picture, but it was him. I read the name in disbelief. "Rupert Coleman." I muttered as my mind fought to find some explanation. "Died in a fire."
The priest sighed with a thin smile. "Yes, but his spirit is alive in this place. I came here to take over the parish and shelter about three years after the fire. So, I never met Rupert. But the priest who was retiring had been here for nearly forty years, Father McNally. He first met Rupert when Rupert started volunteering after he had stayed in the shelter during a harsh winter. Rupert soon took a job in the kitchen and they gave him room and board. He played his clarinet in the evenings for the guests. After nearly a year, they offered him a position with a small salary along with room and board. A sort of night manager and he was leading some bible studies."
He paused and his voice cracked with emotion. "He refused the money, he just wanted room and board. The fire happened not long after they offered him the salary. Father McNally told me that faith came to Rupert shortly after he arrived at the mission. Rupert never shared the details of what changed his life. Father McNally said he had never met a more humble servant of the Lord. Astounding that Rupert made such an impression in less than a year."
I told my editor there wasn't enough to go on when I got back to work. I was afraid to tell anyone that I believed Rupert Coleman came to me and Shawn Murphy had come to Rupert. Both as spirit emissaries of the Lord God. I told my wife before we got married a few years later, she is the only person I have ever told. She believed me and she has been after me for years to dig up my old notebook and write about it. The notebook was buried in the attic when we got married, I avoided searching for it. Afraid of what people might think of me as a journalist if I wrote about it. My own pride is the real reason it has taken so long, something I regret.
I dug up the notebook days into my retirement, determined to write about my encounter with an angel named Rupert. An encounter that transformed my life. Even though I did not originally believe his story, the message motivated me to get my life back on track. The real change came when I went back to the mission on that spring day. I said a silent prayer to the Lord when I left the shelter. I accepted Christ back into my heart and began a struggle to better myself in the eyes of the Lord. Even though I fall short and I still struggle, I have kept my faith. I read from that old Bible with the red velvet place keeper every day.
It has revealed itself to be an unusual book, old and worn but it does not seem to have gotten more fragile in the time I have had it. I also realized days after I first had it in my possession that there is no copyright or publisher information, but there do not seem to be any missing pages. I often wonder if another soul passed it on to Shawn Murphy. Or was he the first to pass it on to Rupert Coleman? Has it been passed on for generations? I have done nothing of merit like either of them but I would be most blessed to have some role in passing it on to someone else in need. Maybe someone with a prideful heart clouding their judgment.