Time is precious; there is none of it spared. However, no one's life should be a flurry of panic. We should merely acknowledge to ourselves that all time is spent and some of it must be spent on necessities like food, water, and shelter. As much of the rest as we can manage should be used to bring joy.
On a spring day in 2021, the sun shone bright but not warm enough. The morning air chilled us through our clothes, right to our bones. The Frederick Home Show was holding its opening ceremony outside for the first time. We had gathered in our group, jackets on, and waited through the introductions. Our singers had been paid to perform the national anthem to the gathering of state senators, businessmen, town council members, event organizers, and other honoraries. After a brief round of their talk, we took off our masks. We gave them our best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
This was 2021 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalization numbers around our area waxed and waned. Small businesses struggled to adjust to State of Maryland social isolation rules. No one seemed entirely happy.
"That was good," one of the singers said as the crowd applauded for us. We glanced at one another and nodded.
Every time we appeared at the Frederick Home Show, we volunteered for a level of extra effort. We walked around the area to sing barbershop songs to the vendors in their stalls for an hour. In those relatively dark barns, we found free corners and sang to the home remodeling business staff. Physically, the one-story aluminum sheds, sixty feet on the smallest side, a hundred forty feet on the longest, were cold and tough places for music. Sounds echoed down the rows of stalls. Or they died in a display of water fountains. Hard ceilings amplified us or, sometimes, sent our notes at angles and in directions we couldn't track. Once, fans turned on and drowned us out. It was simply hard to judge the conditions before we sang.
"Those folks over there are waving to us," the director said. He marched in their direction. We followed.
Even with smiles and gestures, it could be as hard to judge the people as it was our physical circumstances. Some vendors danced as we sang. Others just four feet beyond, scowled. We were interrupting their business. Often, opinions about us varied within a single booth. It was that way every year. Music fans stood next to hostile guardians of a few square feet of vendor territory.
"Some of these folks are still mad about last year," one of the singers remarked.
In 2020, the state government had shut down the Frederick Home Show due to the pandemic. Our local construction companies still felt bitter.
We sang Java Jive, a song about coffee, next to a vendor selling bags of ground coffee among their wares. In the early morning, the song always makes people smile. In that way at least, it is utterly reliable. Next, we tried Wink and a Smile.
Farther down the row of vendors, we stopped to sing them a love song. Around the corner near the back row of the vendor displays, we tried a traditional ballad. We finished to a smattering of applause.
"How about 'Sold?'" one of our singers asked.
Instead of answering, the director raised his arms. Collectively, we turned back into a two-row semi-circle and we took a breath. When he lowered his arms, we launched.
'Sold' is a fast-paced, foot-tapping number. It's also a fairly recent tune, so folks in the barn knew it. Next to me, a young lady busted into a smile. She started clapping to the beat. Softly, she sang the words. Across the aisle, a booth of vendors and customers halted their conversation. Grins on their faces, they turned toward us. Passers-by stopped to listen.
And we kept going.
The notes came through us in a patter, fast and light. Another young woman in a dress joined the first next to me, singing the words half under her breath. And next to her, a young man in a sports jacket tapped his right foot. Everyone smiled.
Everyone relaxed except an old man in a black shirt, who had looked sad and lonely at the start. As the other folks around us seemed to get happier, he got more glum. He turned angry. His expression grew bitter.
It can be hard to tell why some people seem to make a conscious decision to be in a bad mood. But they do; and that's fine or at least it's perfectly usual. Maybe for him, he wasn't getting enough work during the pandemic. Or his adult children had told him they weren't going to give him grandchildren. Or his wife had refused to come to the Home Show with him. Or maybe he was bitter and lonely because, unwittingly or not, he had arranged for his life to be that way. He had determined that he didn't like people. Who could blame him, really. If you're hoping for humanity to be nice, disappointment is normal. Anyway, nothing could make him smile.
For a moment, he folded his arms and stood with his legs wide, determined to block the air of happiness as it tried to sneak past him in the corridor.
In another minute, we reached the end of the song. The crowd that had gathered around us burst into applause. Most of them fell into a few seconds of laughter, too. Half of the people dispersed to their business that we had delayed. Some gazed at us hopefully, as if we might be persuaded to do it again.
"Hah," grumbled the old man. He gave us a sneer. “What do you all do in your spare time?”
In a way, it was a compliment. He meant it as a statement that we had nothing better to do, perhaps, but it was an acknowledgement of our skill all the same. I don't know why, but I suddenly felt determined to make him crack a smile.
"Chess," I snapped in a voice as loud and clear as his, so he could hear me.
The reply stopped him mid-step. He had been about to pass through our group. But he paused to think and he snorted. It was an odd sound because he cut it very, very short. He had a lot of self-control. Then he turned away. As he spun on his heels, I could see the start of a grin on his lips. He didn't want anyone to see it. He didn't want to concede his bad mood had been spoiled for an instant.
He adjusted his body so that, despite the crowd, he managed to face no one. He strode away down a clear path between vendor booths. Where he had stood crouched and sullen before, he marched upright and with a purpose as he left. Also, he kept shaking his head.