Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Jimmy Atahualpa

I've received a fair amount of email on this subject over the past couple days, quite a bit of it supportive. But as usual, there is an undercurrent of taunting from the skeptics out there. These are, no doubt, the same people who told me I'd never get that mail-order propane grill assembled without a contractor's help, the same faithless detractors who bet against me in the 100-meter crab-walk sprint at the '98 Goodwill Games. The overall tone and content of these messages is, I think, best captured in the following one-liner from "":

Well, Phutatorius — it's [time of email] on [day of email], and your army hasn't yet stormed Washington. What gives?

To this message and to all others like it, I answer: Patience, Brother/Sister. This sort of thing takes time, and what's more, it is accomplished in incremental steps. A march on the White House is not the only marker of progress worthy of an update.

And I do, as a matter of fact, have something to report.

Earlier today I was walking back to the office from a favored lunch spot when Jimmy Atahualpa (stage name), a friendly acquaintance, flagged me down on the sidewalk. Jimmy is a Quechua Indian from the Peruvian Andes and formerly a Harvard Square street musician. Jimmy used to play the pan flute in a drum-and-pipe ensemble with his brother, Chico. Andean folk interpretations of rock 'n' roll classics — Sympathy for the Devil, Waiting for the Man by the Velvets. Stuff like that. Jimmy was a seasonal performer, playing to the usual audiences of tourists and teenage runaways in the spring and summer months, then taking up a day job at a dry-cleaning company from November to April. He did this for six, seven years before the perchloroeethylene and other cleaning chemicals gave him lung cancer.

Jimmy's all right now. Doctors took out most of his left lung, along with the lower lobe of his right. In another couple months he'll have his five-year clean bill of health (knock on wood), but it taxes his lungs too much to play the pipes anymore. So now he just parks himself down in his customary spot on the brick sidewalk outside the Harvard Square train entrance (in fact, you can see him on the Google satellite map, if you really lean in and squint), where he sells alpaca blankets and CD-Rs of the Atahualpa Brothers' greatest hits. It helps his sales efforts that he keeps the excised portions of his lungs in a specimen jar on the sidewalk beside him. It's a good ice-breaker with potential buyers.

Anyway, I had just finished lunch this afternoon, and I was hustling back to the office for a meeting, when Jimmy called out to me from his seat on the sidewalk:


I waved hello.

"What happened to you?"

That stopped me in my tracks. Jimmy's a pretty discerning fellow, I thought, if he can look at me and see that, since the last time I saw him, I have had a Moment.

"Why do you ask?" was my question back to him.

"Well, you're limping, kind of dragging that left ankle," Jimmy said. "There's a butterfly bandage on your neck. It looks like somebody pulled a patch of hair off your scalp —"

"Oh," I said. "That. All of that. You're talking about the Incident." Not the Moment.

"— your right eye is blackened, you have gauze stuffed in your left nostril —" Jimmy paused to catch his breath, then continued — "you seem to be missing one of your incisors —"

"Yes, yes, yes," I interrupted, not anxious to hear Jimmy out as he catalogued every bump and bruise on my facies. "I had an Incident."

"What happened?"

I told him.

"Man, that sucks," Jimmy said. "Groomsmen."

Jimmy's a good person. Kind, thoughtful, generous, concerned. It shamed me that a man with 75% of his lung capacity sitting in a jar on the ground beside him would be offering me his sympathy, when my wounds were largely superficial. So I thought it best to try to put a good face on things, to say something upbeat. After all, I hadn't come complaining to him. He had simply asked me what happened.

"The upside to all of it, though, Jimmy, is that while I was on the ground and they were working me over, I had a Moment."

"A Moment, huh?" Jimmy picked up his jar and climbed up on his feet. He always wanted at least one hand on his jar. "Did you achieve Clarity?"

"I did."


"Insight, too," I said, proudly. "Destiny-shaping Insight."

"Tell me more," Jimmy Atahualpa said to me, bringing his hand to my shoulder.

I looked at my watch. Screw my one o'clock, I decided. Some things are more important. And over the next ten minutes I told Jimmy Atahualpa all about my Moment, what I had learned about myself, the plans I had for my future. All of it. Jimmy listened, rapt, as I told him these things. When I had finished, Jimmy looked me square in the eye, and he said:

"I beat cancer."

"I know," I said.

"Let me talk," Jimmy said, lifting a finger off his jam jar lid and pointing it at my sternum. "The power is in you, Phutatorius, to do all these things you're talking about. Just like the power was in me to beat cancer. You see? You just have to believe in yourself, brother. You got me?"

Touched, at a loss for words, I nodded.

"I know you got me, brother," Jimmy said, smiling, "'cause I can see it in your eyes. And because your eyes tell me you're serious, and you're a committed person, I think I can help you."

I raised an eyebrow.

"A guy I know back in Peru sends me these blankets, right? My supplier. His brother is a —" Jimmy looked over his shoulder, shifted his eyes left, then right, took a breath. "Well, my guy in Peru can put you in touch with his brother. Are you willing to do that?"

I didn't have the first clue who Jimmy's friend's brother was, or what he did. "What, is the guy a diplomat or something?"

"Let me have your mobile phone number," Jimmy said.

I rattled it off. Jimmy pulled a Rollerball pen from his pocket and took it down on the back of his hand.

"I can't make any promises, Phutatorius, but if this works out, and you get my guy's brother to call you, remember that I helped get you started. Okay?"

"Okay," I said. We shook on it.

"The power is in you, Phutatorius."

And that's how we left it. My telephone is charged and in my pocket. More importantly, I have this to say to all of you burping squids out there who can do nothing but criticize: Jimmy Atahualpa knows I'm serious.

And he beat fucking cancer. What have you ever done?

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