Occupation: street musician

THE Chicago bus terminal is full of signs. I sat under one, ``Please Don't Talk to Strangers,'' and studied the stranger nearest me. She eyed me also, appraising my conservative blazer and skirt, my sensible shoes. I stared back, taking note of her black stockings and high-heeled white shoes, her dark, full-skirted dress, and her several coats. But it was her behavior, not her appearance, that held my attention. The air rang as she clattered the metal lockers open and shut, rummaging around to put coats and a suitcase in one, taking boxes, a bag of fruit, and gym shoes from another.

We were separated by a gulf of differing experiences, but clearly it was a gulf both of us wanted to bridge. She made the first attempt.

``I'll be so glad to get these shoes off. When your feet hurt, you just hurt all over.'' I smiled so she would go on. ``I was playing my instrument for four hours today, and I'm so tired.''

My attention was caught. ``What instrument is that?''

``Why, the accordion. I'm a street musician. I play the accordion in the subways.''

I was charmed by the novelty of her life. With time to spare between buses, I was ready to be charmed. But more than that, I scented something. Like a bloodhound I got a whiff of a character, an interesting tale, a scrap of human interest. So I readily accepted her invitation for a refreshment and conversation.

I genuinely wanted to hear how she became a street musician -- one of more than 600 licensed in the city of Chicago -- and the hardships of supporting herself by providing music to commute by. Her experiences were out of the ordinary, and they stuck in my memory after we parted.

It is not her experiences, however, that are important. She may tell her own story someday, and it will be better than any secondhand version.

Her life differed substantially from mine, but more than the specific details of her life, the memories I savor from our conversation pertain to the things we had in common. Those were myriad: husbands, parents, children, friends, the familial web of relationships many of us share. Health and hardship, poverty and prosperity, along with triumphs and regrets, these are the bittersweet moments that flavor every life.

Like a fisherman I had cast my line, and I sat back to see what I might reel in. Instead, I found myself hooked by her freshness, impressed by her grit. I was looking for an eccentric, but she showed me so much more, she showed me someone real. I was expecting differences, but she went beyond the differences and offered more to unite us.

She will probably never read this, but I owe her an apology and a debt of gratitude. The apology is for thinking I could trim her spirit to fit my preconceived ideas, for thinking I had her all figured out. The gratitude is because she gave me a chance to figure out something about myself. She went beyond the narrow limits I prescribed to teach me anew that people can never be so easily classified.

I am so glad she defied all my preconceptions, sent them all sky-rocketing like a Fourth of July display, and showed me herself instead.

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