Charlie Cox is playing his banjo in the park in front of the Page Museum. It's his job. He's self-employed. He plays for everybody. School kids on field trips to the Page, there to see the fossils that have been dug from the park's tar pits, walk by Charlie, skip past Charlie, and some twist their arms in the air as they praise Charlie for his playing. He nods, smiles, and later when they walk back in front of him, he asks if they want to dance, if they like to dance, and they do, so he sorts them in twos, lining them up to square dance, calling out to swing their partner and now sashay. They follow his directions and I wonder if they are so agreeable with their teachers on the bus that took them across town. Cynthia and Jesus, and Lawrence and Annie, and Kim and Michael, and Gerardo and Martinique are happy to oblige when he calls for them to switch partners. Charlie picks up the beat, strums his banjo a little harder and the swinging is the best part as the kids try to launch each other over the lawn. That's living.
They don't keep Charlie company for long. Their teacher and chaperone start calling out names--Heather, Becky, Scott, Scott, Scott, Scott (there's just one Scott, but Scott keeps dancing by himself as if he's got three partners, and they're all named Scott)--and Charlie tells them that he will be there when they come back. He has a carpet that he stands on, it is thin, just thick enough to cushion his feet from the pebbled ground. He wears soft, black shoes, that would look comfortable walking up and down a grocery store aisle. Or on a fitness walk across city sidewalks. Then his wardrobe turns western, from his khaki pants to his gray vest to his cowboy hat; he has a mustache, white, trimmed--it's kind of dashing. He's been coming to the park since the mid-1970s and says he makes enough playing there and at parties to support himself. If you want him to do a private show, he's available, just call the number on the black box that has a couple of donated fives and several ones in it that he fans out for maximum exposure.
He's looking at me as he stands on his carpet. He's about 15 feet away and I'm sitting on a low wall under a tree. You have a lot of work, I say. Oh, sure, he agrees. All day long, he adds. It is a Thursday in January, not quite noon, and warm. Charlie looks up, squints, and says it is a beautiful day. Park visitors walk by. It is t-shirt weather. The Page is open, but not the county art museum. Sirens on ambulances and fire trucks are busy going up and down Wilshire. My ears can't do their job. The sirens interrupt my conversation with Charlie, so I walk from the low wall to ask him about the last song he played. I say that it had some Irish in it. He laughs, says no, and holds the "o" like it's the last note in a chorus. Did I miss something? What's the name of it? I ask. "Admiral Rodney," he says. He looks at my face and figures he has some explaining to do. Admiral Rodney sailed for the British Navy in the 18th Century. An Irish deckhand wrote the song.
Charlie fingers his banjo a bit and then moves the stand that holds his guitar. I'm sitting down again, and he walks over to me with his banjo still strapped around his shoulder. The banjo's neck is long; it could be three feet long. He tells me that he likes coming to the park, and he tells me about his hero, Roy Rogers, whom he saw at a fair as a kid in Iowa City, Iowa, and they gave each other a big wave. Charlie breaks into a big grin and waves again, like a little kid, like he must have done many decades ago. It was so great, he says. Charlie must be over 65 now and he is still thrilled by the encounter. He always liked Roy Rogers. He didn't care for Gene Autry, not really. He was too packaged, he says. As Charlie talks I look at his cowboy hat. It is more Roy Rogers than Gene Autry. It is more Texas swing than Texas sheriff. I can't see Charlie arresting anybody, with or without the hat. He looks over at three LAPD motorcycle cops who have parked their Kawasakis inside the park. I wonder what they are doing here, he says. I feel I have to answer. They look like they are getting ready for a parade, I say. I don't think so, Charlie says. He looks suspicious.
Charlie strolls back to his carpet and slips his banjo off, trading it for his guitar. He strums it, doesn't tune it, and picks it. He yodels. He sings. He's back on the Irish again. Sounds like they had made it to Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain. He sings of a Creole woman whose black hair fell to her shoulder. I can picture that. He does not have to sing more of it for me to know that she was beautiful. This must be an Irish song, but it sounds like it could have come out of Appalachia. The story is universal: the beautiful woman is going to marry another man, not the narrator who makes his own marriage proposal to her. He knows his words are futile. She is adamant. She will not be swayed. She will be true to her man who is off to sea. The narrator has lost this argument, he knows, but he will remember her. To my left a woman walks away from her husband and mother, and looks tentative as she goes towards Charlie. She puts a dollar in the black box and it gives her confidence to ask him a question. What was the song about? Charlie tells her that the Irish went to Louisiana a long time ago, and they settled on the shore at Lake Pontchartrain. A man, the narrator of the song, had nowhere to go one miserable night and a kind woman took him in. He fell in love with her, but she made him say goodbye.
Charlie walks back to me with his guitar and he tilts its body out towards me. He says, I would never have guessed that I'd buy a guitar with a cutaway and a sunburst, but I did. He shows me the proof. Far down the neck there is a curve in the body where he can get his fingers to the upper frets easily. I went in to the guitar shop, he says, strummed this and within ten minutes I knew I had to have it. It's Korean-made and he found it up on Sunset at a place called Johnny Guitar. It's now long gone, he thinks.
I ask him if he grew up in Iowa City where he waved at Roy Rogers. He says no, the family just lived there while his father was attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. His name was James T. Cox, and he wrote some short stories and moved the family to Tallahassee, Florida, where he taught at the state college. His writing didn't make him famous. He gave up on it to support his family as a teacher, since Charlie's mother was middle-class and didn't like the idea of his father just working on his stories and not making any money. Charlie's father did have one story that he sent to the Paris Review, which the magazine lost somewhere behind a desk. When Charlie's dad followed up with an editor, he was told they couldn't use it since they had published a story just like it in the previous issue. His father then sent his story around again, but it kept getting rejected. Finally, it was accepted by a little magazine. Before it was, Charlie's dad had killed himself. After he says it, Charlie looks like he has given away too much family history to a stranger. He says in a low voice, still thinking of his father's suicide: I learned to never do that. He walks back to his carpet. It seems to make him feel better.
Charlie is playing a penny whistle when a man with a friend and his little daughter stop to listen. The father encourages his little girl to go up and dance in front of Charlie. She is a four-year-old and follows her father's direction. The father is a big man and has a Russian accent. Charlie hears him and straps on his banjo again and sings a Russian folk song. The father sings along in Russian as his little girl dances, her blond hair falling in ringlets. Charlie asks her if she knows, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." He plays it, and his banjo sounds bright and clear. She does know that one and jumps a little higher. The father is amused and has another request. He wants to hear "You are My Sunshine." He looks over to me and says, Yes, I like it. I like it. It is a very good song, a very good song, he says. I agree and know it is the kind of song you sing when you have a job to do, that's a little mundane, like washing windows or raking leaves. Charlie sings the song, and the father watches his daughter and claps his hands and sings the words along with Charlie as if it is an old Russian folk song. The girl keeps dancing. Her father keeps singing. Charlie keeps playing. He is busy. He has a lot of work to do.