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H.W., like Hollywood

I WASN’T REALLY LOOKING for him when he found me. I wasn’t really looking for anything. I was peering down the Fremont canopy, looking forward to getting in my car, then my bed, and staying there for a long while.

It was nearly 4 a.m., an unusually humid Las Vegas night. The action under the Experience had long since died down, and a few placid stragglers bumped around aimlessly. I stopped to wait for friends.

Feet away, a musician was strumming his guitar, singing to no one in particular. His voice was piercing, soulful. My friend Jenn and I had moved closer to listen when he invited us in.

“Step onto the blanket,” he said. “I’ll play a song for you.”

I worried about the filth from my shoes tainting the surface he might sleep on later that night. “I don’t wanna step on your blanket. I’ll stand right here,” I said, my toes brushing up against the blanket’s edge.

“Step on the blanket,” he said. “It’s OK.”

I conceded, and the musician shared his recipe: “Say your name, something you care about in one word, and then say ‘begin.’”

His directions were abrupt. I was expecting more conversation, but the process belonged to him. I said the first thing that came to mind: “My name is Kristy. I care about music. Begin.”

He began to play. While his speaking voice was mumbly and nervous, his singing was deliberate, his lyrics certain.

“It’s Kristy-clear, she has no fear/ she has no emotion oppressed being fearful in the night light/ Sin City brave/ music is the spirit that calms the savage beast/Kristy-clear she smiles in style/ no high pants only a skirt that’s slightly above her knee.”

At this point a crowd had gathered, punctuating the musician’s performance with hoots and yeahs. Girlfriends leaned upon boyfriends. Not a single person passed without stopping.

“Calling all the chariots and soldiers and horses/ The king of nobody’s rare/ disclose your stature, girl.”

And so the song went, Hampton finger-picking open chords over his poetry. We all stood hypnotized, silent. When it was over, all I could say was ‘thank you,’ and handed him a red velvet drawstring bag with a Year of the Dragon symbol, which he had mentioned in his song.

Jenn asked for a song about capybaras, the largest rodent on Earth, but then switched to “travel” when it became clear the man did not do irony.

Afterward, she asked his name.

“Henry Wallace Hampton,” he said. “H.W., like Hollywood.”

My friends and I turned to head back down Fremont street, astonished at what we had just experienced. Passersby were now lined up for their own songs.

“Can we hear another?” someone asked.

Hampton nodded. “I do songs. Say your name and what you like in one word.”