All alone in Laramie

ARRIVING in a strange new place with just enough money to last you a couple of days, standing on the sidewalk and wondering whether to head up or down the frightening street to try to find a new job - in life there are moments more painful than these, but none, I think, more desolate.

And yet I know of people who would gladly live through such moments again for the sake of the unexpected joy that followed them. My friend Isaac - Izzy, I call him - is one. Izzy is short, round, slightly sleepy in his smile, with a good heart whose warmth you can see in his eyes. It's been 20 years since he had his scrape with desolation, but he remembers it vividly still.

Let go from his last job as a carpenter, he had arrived by bus one rainy morning in the nearest big town he could afford a ticket to, Laramie, Wyo. He'd hurriedly left the bus, whose ambiance of spoiled sleep depressed him, and made his way to the sidewalk in front of the terminal. In his pockets were no keys, no credit cards, no addresses, none of the precious debris that accumulates in the pockets of a rooted person. All he had was his carpenter's toolbox, which, doubling as a suitcase, contained some clothes as well.

Where to go, what to do? He looked up and down the street. And to his amazement he saw that the sidewalks in both directions were crowded with people. Women in cowboy boots and long buckskin dresses huddled under dripping umbrellas. Men, the brims of their cowboy hats slowly filling with puddles, held children on their shoulders. Could so many people also be seeking new lives? No, instead they were waiting for something, looking anxiously toward the brighter end of the street. Curious, Izzy looked too.

Faintly at first, but gradually louder and louder, there came the mingled boom and blare of a band. And all of a sudden, preceded by high-stepping, baton-twirling majorettes, the band itself loomed into view and came marching down the street. It looked at least half a block, maybe a whole block, long. Behind it, riding high on horses of all kinds, palominos, pintos, roans, came dozens of bespangled cowboys. They were waving their white hats and smiling at everybody as if good, triumphant at last over evil, had come to take charge of the world, starting with Laramie.

On the biggest drum as the band passed by where he stood, Izzy saw the words ''Laramie High School Band.'' And not far behind the drum two cowboys were holding up a drenched banner that proclaimed, ''The Great Laramie Rodeo, Come One, Come All!''

How many invitations do you receive on a rainy day, especially when you've got no home address? The sky, holding up the banner of a rainbow, that invitation from above for those below to be pleased that the world had come through once again, it couldn't have moved my friend more. To Izzy that cowboy's banner seemed something made especially for him. He remembered the old saying that when fortune knocked, you should offer her a chair, and he thought the people of Laramie were making a new saying, that when misfortune knocked, misfortune personified, you should invite him to the rodeo. And so, as the patient people who'd been waiting in the rain cheered and whooped and whistled, he, the total stranger caught up in all the excitement, accepted his invitation right on the spot.

Running out into the street, he took up a position between the band and the cowboys, gripped his toolbox like a drum, and boomed away with his bare hand. If ever there was the sight of a man beginning again, he was it. He never did get in step with the band, and his booms sounded rather tinny, but oh, oh, what a rousing time he had!

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