The day had just begun to loosen its hold on rain. My volunteers and I worked feverishly to set up our garage tents before the medical supplies got wet. It was promising to be a wet and wild Sunday clinic and we had a drum beat to match our rhythm.
Occupy Medical is free weekly clinic that gives integrated healthcare in the universal healthcare model in the park every Sunday for the last 3 years. We drive the bus to the curb at 10am and have the supplemental tents up and filled for patients by noon.
We always have a few people waiting for us before we arrive. Some arrive ahead of time to grab a cup of coffee before volunteering. Some stroll in to get a good place in line. Some sleep in the park the night before. Our set up assistants are a hearty mix of vetted volunteers and grateful patients.
Today, the 2 hour set up process had musical accompaniment. One of the unhoused sat under the shelter of the permanent park pavillion playing his drum. This was the second time I had seen him. He was newly unhoused. He had long hair pulled back in a ponytail and a sharp, intelligent look in his eyes. His few possessions were stuffed in a black plastic bag by his feet.
Once the tents were erected and the supplies had been dragged from the bus to the appropriate area, the rain started up again. A fellow volunteer nodded towards our drummer.
“Are you going to talk to him?”
As much as we love music, it makes our job trickier to have extra noise. I walked over and sat down on the bench by the drummer. He had a hand made ceramic drum between his knees. I stared out at the weather as he skillfully worked his way around the hide. It was a song, not just rhythm. He was playing notes with percussion.
When he finished, I asked him how he got here. He told me about his tattered relationship. He grieved that he had to walk away from his girlfriend of 8 years. He felt that he simply did not have the skills to hold it together. The fighting wasn’t good for any one.
We talked about a number of topics: the economy, politics and family. He told me about getting beaten by some street toughs who wanted his money. He told me that he reported the attack to the police but they didn’t believe him.
He asked if I would look at his back where the attackers had kicked him. As he pulled up the back of his shirt, I saw a constellation of bruises. I encouraged him to sign up to get help from our doctors. He refused. He insisted that he would be fine.
“I need to talk to you about the drumming. We can’t hear a pulse if it is too loud. The beat interferes in accurately taking blood pressure.”
“Is it okay if I play my drum across the street? Will that be a problem?”
The park that we use consists of 2 blocks with a busy, one way street separating them.
“That would be perfect. Thank you for asking. You are always welcome here when we are here. We try to make it a safe place for everyone. I do enjoy your music. I just want you to know that you have talent.”
The drummer smiled. He straightened his posture and I could see that his music was a big part of his identity. At this point, it was possible that his music was what kept his pride intact as he tried to dodge the degrading violence of life on the street.
Later, as I was helping an elderly woman to the intake tent, I heard the drummer again. The rhythm was slower and softer. I looked around but I could not see where he was sitting.
The tones seemed to come from a block or so away. There was a sadness to them that matched the clouds above us. The beat was steady like a pulse and gentle like rain.