In San Francisco there is a man. His given name is Ju-yin, but we call him Julian. His demeanor is somewhat reserved, but extremely aware. His voice is soft and hushed, and his English is broken.
I met Julian through a girl named Char-Mee. We first saw him sitting on a sofa directly across from us in the day room of our hostel. He avoided our eye contact, yet clearly paid notice to our joking remarks directed at one another. But when Char-Mee addressed him in Korean, his eyes lit up and his smile beamed. In their mother tongue, Julian told Char-Mee his story.
It was always his dream to explore North America, so over a year ago he had hopped a flight that took him from Seoul to Vancouver, where he found a job working as a cashier. But the song of the southern road had been calling him, and now he found himself with us in San Francisco, California, having migrated down the coastline from Canada.
Julian has been living out of his van, moving from city to city. He showers in hostels in exchange for cleaning services, saving his precious money as best he can and spending it only on things that he finds uniquely valuable. Everything he owns is in his van.
Tonight, a man asked Julian if he could sleep in his van. The man was from New York, and he had flown out two weeks prior. Things in San Francisco did not work out as he had planned and, his money having been depleted, he only needed a place to lay his head. But knowing that it would be cold out, Julian took this man inside the hostel instead, and paid for his bed overnight. He did all of this as quietly as possible, not wanting to attract too much attention, perhaps in part to save the man from any kind of embarrassment. I realized then that Julian truly is a good man.
About a month before, while Julian was out, a group of kids decided it would be a great idea to shatter this quiet man's life. They broke into his van and took everything, making off with more than two thousand dollars worth of his belongings. He told me this, while having lunch, in a seemingly frank and forthright tone of voice. When I asked him if he was all right, he simply lowered his eyes and nodded, as if saying there really isn't anything else to do but deal with it.
Amongst his stolen personals was a saxophone, on which he had taught himself to play. It had been too expensive for him to buy, so instead he did what he could just to have one, and the best he could think of was to rent it. When asked what made him want to teach himself the workings of an instrument while on the road, he said that it was more because he needed something to do during his solo travels, something that would keep him company whenever his state of solitude beset a feeling of loneliness. Julian is always alone, but it is when he is lonely that he feels the need to play. But someone has made off with this borrowed instrument, and instead of having saved money by renting, now he is stuck with a debt that he cannot pay off.
Yet, oddly enough, he has managed to get himself another saxophone, this time purchasing it. The occasionally overwhelming feeling of seclusion has given him the rationality to spend his savings on what to some would seem a luxury but to him would be a necessity. It is an older sax, and from what he tells us, it is somewhat broken and flat. He tells us that there are some notes it cannot reach, but my untrained ears cannot pick up the difference.
Julian told me today about his Okinawan girlfriend whom he had met during his travels. She could not speak Korean and he could speak very little Japanese, yet they spoke to each other with their eyes. She returned home a while ago after having rode with Julian for a short time, and now he is trying to sell his van so as to meet her in her home country.
I sit here on the curb, listening to Julian play his haunting music on a cold park bench. He plays us a song called Santa Fe. It is a well known tune here on the West Coast, although its melody is unfamiliar to me. His version sounds low and almost tiresome, yet pleased and slightly relaxed. It makes me see how one can understand a language even if it is not their own, whether it is through the eyes of a close companion, or through the notes of a second hand saxophone.
The song Julian plays slowly winds down, and when his solo is done, a German kid named Alex claps his hands in applause. Julian bows his head and shyly reiterates the fact that his instrument is slightly out of tune. But Alex just smiles at him and tells him that his ears cannot pick up the difference.
COMING UP: "Drifter Profiles" is a monthly series, so if you enjoyed this profile, don't forget to subscribe by e-mail or RSS feed.
And now we ask you: Have you ever met someone that has affected your way of life, or the way you think, in such a way that you will never forget the impact they had on you?
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...