About 10 years ago I lived a scaled-down version of the plot of the new movie The Soloist.
I was freelancing for a free biweekly music tabloid here in San Diego called SLAMM. One Friday night I was seated at an outdoor bar in downtown in San Diego, when I heard cutting through the noise of the crowds and cars a male singing voice so … robust and perfectly pitched that I left the bar to go stand on the sidewalk outside of it, hoping to again hear that voice. I did, and started walking toward it.
Four blocks later I found a shirtless black man wearing a suit vest, jeans, and a porkpie hat playing a harmonica and singing the blues with such powerful authority he had effectively transformed the whole corner of 5th Avenue and G Street into his very own juke joint. After his set I stepped up and offered him my hand.
“You’re a terrific player,” I said. “Amazing control.”
“Thank you,” he said shyly. He took my hand, and almost broke it. “I’m Sam Michaels,” he said.
Over the next couple of weeks I got to know Sam. When he was nine years old, his parents had immigrated from Cuba to Texas. His mother was a school teacher, his father a musician. After the Vietnam war had officially ended he served with Special Forces, rescuing American soldiers still being held in Vietnamese jungle camps. Sam was a Christian; he kept a pocket-sized New Testament with him at all times. He was also homeless.
He was a top-notch singer and player in command of a vast repertoire of songs. His voice was a steady, booming melange of Elvis, John Lee Hooker, whiskey, and roasting coffee beans. It scared you and comforted you. And he was a truly masterful harp player. Sam so rapidly switched between singing and playing that often, while watching him perform, your ears often had to inform your eyes what just happened, since your eyes couldn’t keep up.
I wrote a story about Sam that (along with a couple of photos I snapped of him) took up the entire final page of an issue of SLAMM. About a week after that story came out, San Diego’s public broadcasting station, KPBS, aired a segment about Sam produced by one of their radio reporters who had tracked Sam down after reading my piece on him.
And suddenly, Sam Michaels was a bit of a star.
SLAMM was hardly The Los Angeles Times. But it did 42,000 copies every two weeks, and was distributed at some 700 locations throughout San Diego. Everyone knew the magazine. And nobody in San Diego didn’t (and doesn’t) know KPBS, one of the largest public television and radio broadcasting stations in the country.
A week or so after the segment on Sam aired on KPBS radio, I got a call from the guy who’d produced it. He told me that Sam had phoned him in hopes of meeting with us both at a coffee shop downtown.
Sam looked as if he hadn’t slept in a week. Normally impeccably groomed, his clothes and hair had grown raggedy. His usually steady gaze was fleeting and unsettled. He spoke too rapidly. He was upset about something he struggled to articulate.
The radio reporter and I began to understand that Sam was upset because he feared the fame we had recently afforded him was waning—that his window of opportunity was rapidly closing.
When Sam excused himself to use the restroom, the reporter leaned across the table and said to me worriedly, “He thinks we made him famous.”
“I know!” I said. “But … it’s SLAMM magazine. I don’t even read it.”
“Yow. This isn’t good. I wouldn’t know a recording contract from a grocery store receipt. I don’t even get paid to write for SLAMM.”
“Really?” said the reporter. “Seriously? Nothing?”
“Nothing. My day job is as a mailroom schlump for a legal office. What are we gonna do? I love this guy.”
“I do, too. Sam’s the best.”
As it turned out, there was nothing we could do. We tried to explain to Sam that we were practically homeless; that we weren’t movers or shakers in the entertainment business; that we didn’t know anyone who owned a recording studio, or a nightclub, or who booked musicians into gigs.
“I make photocopies all day,” I said. “I push around a squeaky little mail cart. You get more money in your hat on a Saturday night than I make in a week.”
“We’re just guys with crappy jobs,” said the reporter.
But we couldn’t convince Sam of what, in the end, we perhaps didn’t want to, since it was something that I know brought me sudden shame. I’d never thought of it before, but the truth is that, in the process of creating publishable “human interest” stories, I used people. It had never occurred to me that writing about Sam could hurt him—that by putting his name and picture in a magazine that was available all over town, I would upset the world balance he had arranged for himself. On his downtown corner, Sam was king. But once he had been objectively crowned by way of a magazine and radio story about him, it illuminated for him how tiny his realm really was. And he then desperately wanted to claim that larger kingdom; he wanted in on the action that, however fleetingly, had spun so seductively around him.
But Sam was no more psychologically prepared for fame and the calculating discipline it requires than I was prepared to pilot a space shuttle. While in Vietnam an enemy combatant had clocked Sam in the head so hard with the butt of a rifle the damage to his skull had ultimately required a steel plate to fix. Sam had meds he couldn’t keep up with and/or afford. He was so exacting about his music that he’d been unable to stay in any of the bands he’d joined in the past. He was, I felt, a musical genius—but he was destined to remain a solo act.
There was little I or my new friend could do for Sam. We tried a couple of things around his recording a CD and so on—but our efforts crumbled beneath Sam’s inability to maintain focus, keep a schedule, arrive on time. Homelessness is its own world, and that world doesn’t too readily mix with Productive Land. In the end, all I could do was sit beside Sam in his tiny, cluttered, $14 a day hotel room, and with him look at some old photos he kept in a shoebox. In one he is standing in a jungle in Vietnam, the sleeves of his camouflage shirt rolled high, its open front revealing his muscular chest. With his hands on his hips, he smiles into the camera with the sure confidence of a man who knows he has no natural bounds. Sticking from the pocket of his shirt one can just make out the tip of a harmonica.