Last Friday Marcia and I were at the Cornerstone Café for their ‘Open Stage’ night, and it was wonderful to see this continuing parade of people get up in front of the microphone – this person singing and picking a guitar, this person doing some very loving slam poetry, the next person reading what they’ve written, and so on. And sitting there in the audience, it occurred to me that if you saw these people on the street or in the elevator you’d never know that she loves opera or that he’s working on a novel or…
It got me thinking about a few different things. The first was John Prine’s song, ‘Hello in There‘. It’s a song he wrote mostly for seniors, and about the song he said:
“I wrote Hello In There on the mail route.
I’d heard the John Lennon song Across The Universe, and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – Hello in there. That was the beginning thought; then it went to old people. I’ve always had an affinity to old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route and I’d deliver to a Baptist old people’s home where you’d have to go room -to-room and some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit instead of the guy delivering papers.
That always stuck n my head. It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing Hello In There, nothing in it wears on me.” ~John Prine
The lyrics are:
Hello In There
We had an apartment in the city,
Me and Loretta liked living there.
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown,
A life of their own left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha,
And Joe is somewhere on the road.
We lost Davy in the Korean war,
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.
Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more,
She sits and stares through the back door screen.
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.
Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy,
We worked together at the factory.
But what could I say if asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do.”
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”
The second thing I thought of was a photography project that Leonard Nimoy did a few years back. Called ‘Secret Selves‘, essentially he asked people to come to his studio dressed as they perceived themselves to be, allowing their inner ‘secret selves’ a chance to be seen.
And, as thoughts in my head tend to ping-pong from one to another, the next thing I thought of was of a project I worked on several years ago. I invested some sixteen years working on wildlife rabies research in southern Ontario with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. One aspect of that project involved setting live traps in an area of Toronto to capture striped skunks and raccoons, whereupon we’d vaccinate them against rabies (similar to taking your dog to the vet, except we provided ‘house calls’) and release them again. One of the other people on the crew was setting up his traps one day when he was approached by two women, one of whom had a cat on her shoulder. The woman with the cat asked what he was doing, and he explained the project, the aims and goals, etc. The second woman didn’t say a word, but, since we baited the traps with sardines, the woman with the cat asked what would happen if her cat was caught in one of the traps. It was a fair question; we’ve captured everything from Norway rats to squirrels, rabbits and groundhogs over the years. My coworker explained that was no problem and showed her how to open the trap.
The next day the woman with the cat came back and found my friend again. She came, she said to thank him for all the information he had provided because as it happened her cat did get caught in one of the traps and she was relieved at being able to rescue him. “Oh by the way,” she continued. “The woman who was with me yesterday? She’s the wife of the Deputy Minister.” I had a similar conversation once with an executive from the Toronto Humane Society – a fact he mentioned at the end of our conversation.
So… I don’t know if there’s a point to all of this, other than when you meet someone for the first time you have no idea who they are, and that if you treat everyone with openness and respect, it really doesn’t matter. And the next time you glance at someone on your morning bus ride, or in the lineup at the bank or wherever, take a moment to look him or her in the eyes and say, “Hello in There”. Find out who they really are, inside. And if you’re like Rita Chand (or us for that matter), you might ask them to give you a hug as well.