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Another friend

My next-door neighbor, James, told me some things about his background while we were driving to see Dreamgirls yesterday. If I had seen this story in a film I would have proclaimed "bullshit!" "preposterous!" but sometimes, indeed, truth is stranger.

From an early age, James loved dancing around. Perhaps he inherited this tendency from his grandmother, who had danced in a famous troupe in the 1920s. She was light-skinned and therefore "passed". A well-off white man fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. She said no. She was unwilling to leave the blacker parts of her family behind. Instead, then, he gave her two pieces of valuable property, thereby establishing the family financially from then on.

One day this grandmother happened upon little James (age three or so) wearing flapper clothes from one of her performance engagements from long ago. She said to him, "You're different, aren't you?" In truth, I suspect, she found a kindred soul and must have rejoiced.

When James was five or six this grandmother took him to the Chicago opera, where he sat in the fifth or sixth row, center, wide-eyed, and saw Maria Callas sing. He fell in love. To this day, he worships Callas and other opera stars and plays their music, listening with reverence. James feels he owes a debt to this grandmother, to these singers, to so many others, and he pays that debt most particularly by reaching senior citizens in convalescent homes, by connecting with them and giving them what he has to give.

Middle-aged and far from well-off, James has no lack of enthusiasm for whatever he is doing. I would be exhausted being him. Yet he continually "gets it up" again and again, never seeming to look back. While I have known him, which is about five years now, I think, I have seen him try out many different ways of making money, and it never seems to matter when one fails. He's on to the next. Although his background is in dancing, singing, and acting, he has been an aide of one sort or another at convalescent centers for some years now and takes great pride in what he can do there. He entered a nursing program at the local college but took a leave of absence after butting heads with the department on several occasions. He is now looking at entering the Psych Tech program at Atascadero State Hospital - a program not for the faint-hearted.  In the end he hopes to become a nurse-practitioner.

One of the debts James hopes to repay is the one given him by the actor John Randolph and his wife. James told me on our first meeting that he was on the streets of New York many years ago when Randolph happened upon him and lifted him up, helped him to find work and more. I do not know the details, but James has been writing a book about this connection so maybe some day we all will.

If you'd like to see James in action, check out his short video. It's at the top of the page - three versions - small, medium, large.

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