The standard blues progression is I-IV-V, which is to say from the root to the subdominant then the dominant and back to the root. The root chord is a place of harmony where all notes resolve back to their original mode. It’s the “Doe” in the “doe, a deer, a female deer…” song some of us were taught in elementary school. The sound of the root is one of tranquility and serenity. There’s nothing hinting at darkness in the distance or horror on the horizon.

That is the subdominant’s job as it arrives with all the disorder and lack of control that the name implies. This is where I find myself on a cold April morning, startled awake as the clock radio gets its 9 a.m. cue to sputter some smooth sax a la John Coltrane from 88.3 FM student radio. Eating enough eggs to feel full and drinking coffee until the jitters arrive should be enough to get one up and at it, but the Fukushima disaster, the global economic slump and the stress of endless procrastination of essay writing have me trapped in the IV. It’s the “Fa” and “a long, long way to run” is right.

And so the school day goes on as planned. My homework, under the guise of bedtime reading, is discussed in classes with more on the way for tomorrow, new essays get assigned, new lectures need to be reviewed and all the while those aforementioned papers are nowhere closer to completion. I begin to enter the V, the “So,” the chord with the biggest pull back to root, to home, to the guitar I have no time to play and the bed destined to remain napless … for now. I must get to the library. The stress begins to build. First steps on the Diag. Point toward UGLi. Any thesis sounding good? No. All too convoluted. Take a step. Head spins. What about history? Fifty pages of reading await. Take a step. Gotta review biochem. Time for dinner? Forgot about Personal Statement. Take another step. No dinner. Internal frown. Coffee wearing off … slowing down … I’m a week behind on… lecture…

And then I hear it.

Schhrrrat-tat-ta-tat. A wailing washboard begins to greet my ears. A few steps later and the harmonica kicks in. Almost like I had rehearsed it, my stride begins to soften and with it the slow onset of bliss replaces whatever the hell I was thinking about before. As I’ve done thousands of times before, I had forgotten the time. Four o’clock in the afternoon: the hour of the Harmonica Man.

I take another step.

Now the Harmonica Man is a mysterious brew. Is he a professor with a heart of gold? A hobo under the guise of mystery? Maybe a janitor who cares just a little too much. No one knows for sure, yet regardless of his rank, hidalgo, caballero or peon, he makes his presence known from his concrete stoop (or in the winter, a harmonica igloo) in front of the UGLi.

The man is simply my hero — the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.) of the jamboree, slurring harmonic verses together with unpredictable and unimaginable precision. He creates an aura around him of untouchable upliftedness. As I take another step I just can’t put my finger on what exactly the magic is, yet I can’t help feeling like Butch Cassidy on a bicycle when the man is tooting off his improvised versions of campfire classics.

Surrounded by all this stone and brick I associate with stress and deadlines, Harmonica Man’s small, understated place between the pages of budget cuts, Michigan Student Assembly elections and crime notes seems to be the perfect metaphor for his place on a piece of concrete in the Diag, with worlds being created and shattered all around him; a handful of letters dictating the tragicomedy in which we find ourselves.

Take a step. Then another.

He’s a lecturer of a public class without grades where there is always a steady number of students to hook with his fifth, So, or V. As they return to a peaceful place, their root, for just a moment, I hope they appreciate the rattling of a washboard they hear from a tiny space in the cold, feeling their facial muscles stretch upward from ear to ear.

The door closes behind me to the sounds of the UGLi. What was I suppos ― oh yeah, my personal response. Back to the IV. Repeat. D.C. al Coda. Fin.

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