On the second Sunday afternoon in August, 1990, I went to Lamb's Farm in Libertyville, Illinois, to listen to an outdoor bluegrass concert. I parked my car several hundred yards from the concert site. As I walked toward the site, a small man approached me. When he got close, he extended his hand, smiled broadly, and exclaimed, "Mr. Bojangles, at your service." We shook hands, but I was too astonished to say anything more than a friendly hello. Later, during the concert, the short man appeared on stage, singing and accompanying himself on the mandolin.
Six years later, during the second week of August, I was in Iowa at the national hobo convention, sitting around the nightly campfire and listening to musicians. A short man was introduced as "Mr. Bojangles." He sang several travelling songs, strumming the mandolin as he did.
The faded memory of the six-year old event took life. "Hmmm," I thought. "I wonder if he is the same person."
The next day I approached him. "Were you at a bluegrass concert at Lamb's Farm in Libertyville, Illinois, on the second Sunday afternoon in August, 1990?" I asked. He replied, "Yes, I was there."
"Ooooh!" I exclaimed. "Do you know what you did? As I was walking to the concert area, you came up to me, extended your hand and said, 'Mr. Bojangles, at your service.'"
Mr. Bojangles smiled. "Yes, that was me," he said. "At your service."
He told me that though he had a home in Indiana, he was a traveler. He would throw his stuff in an old car, set off for little towns, and sing on their sidewalks. At his feet was a hat for traveling money. "A man's got to do what a man's got to do," he explained. I continued to listen. He gave out smiles, he said. "God has blessed me with a pocketful of smiles." Sometimes, though, the local police chase him away from his favorite singing spots. He doesn't understand that, though when they ask him what he is doing, he replies, "I'm giving out smiles."
One of his favorite spots was outside "Hand Made Music" in Nashville, Indiana. On separate occasions, two former Trinity College students came upon him there singing his traveling songs and, knowing that I have an interest in them, asked him whether he knew me. He did.
Two weeks after encountering Mr. Bojangles in Iowa, Ellen, a former student, sent me a bottle of bubbles. I had never owned one before, but I instantly knew what to do with them. I got out the wand and blew bubbles. Then I visited Ellen in Chicago, and blew bubbles as we walked along Broadway Street. A tourist bus passed us as we walked, and one of its passengers leaned out the window and blew bubbles back at me.
A week after this, the thought sparked into my mind—Hey! A bunch of us could blow bubbles at a busy intersection in Chicago, giving out smiles. That night, the night before classes started for the fall semester at Trinity College, where I was teaching then, I saw Phil and Stephanie at a college event. "Maybe they will want to go," I thought. I voicemailed them the next day. (I was too afraid of how they might respond if I talked to them directly.)
Three days passed. I thought they would think I was weird. Then Stephanie voicemailed me back. Yes, she said, she would like to go. She would get several others, I would supply the bubbles and the transportation, and we would blow bubbles for a couple of hours. So that is what we did, on a Friday night in September 1996 at Clark and Belmont Streets in Chicago, an intersection with lots of foot and car traffic.
The next week other students started asking me about going. So I went again. And again. I now buy bubble liquid by the gallon and refill the small plastic bottles we use to blow thousands of bubbles into the air over the heads of passing pedestrians and moving cars.