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Grand Central

Too soon old, too late wise

By PATTY RYAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2003

HE CALLS the day after Christmas, leaving harmonica notes for Jingle Bells on my answering machine at work.

"Jingle Bells is all on 4, 5 and 6," says Early J. McMullen.

Numbers correspond to holes in the harmonica. Tediously, he has transferred the notes from his head to paper.

"You do No. 5 seven times, and you go up one to No. 6 and blow it one time, then you go down to No. 4 and blow it one time, then draw No. 4 one time, then blow No. 5 one time, then draw No. 5 three times . . ."

The instructions roll on to a final No. 5.

Would I take time to map out Jingle Bells for someone? Would you? Maybe we are not quite like Early J.

Early J., 81 years old, is a man who wants to give.

HE LEAVES me boxes of doughnuts.

Janine from downstairs brings them up.

"Doughnuts?" I ask, gravely.

"Doughnuts," she says.

One week, Krispy Kreme; the next, Dunkin' Donuts.

We both know what this means.

DOUGHNUTS ROCK journalistic principles. Reporters and editors are carbohydrate addicts, yet governed by no-gift policies. No Rolex watches. No suitcases of money. No doughnuts, no matter the sweet intent, and so both batches go to charity.

Early J. doesn't try to come up the elevator. I don't know he's been here until he's gone. I've only seen his face in pictures and talked to him on the phone.

He sits in the Times lobby on Ashley Street, near the Performing Arts Center, serenading Janine with harmonica music.

Later, he calls and leaves another message on voice mail, the seventh in five days.

"I HOPE you got ahold of a good doughnut there, today," he says.

His voice is deep but short of breath. His lungs suffered asbestos exposure when he served in the Navy during World War II.

"I hope Jingle Bells comes out a little better for you. Yeah. We're going to make it a happy new year. Good cheer, Patty. Your friend, Early J."

He is your friend, too, if you will listen to his stories, which flow like water from a hose.

He has a letter from Ronald Reagan. Another from the Queen of England. His mother once sat in the lap of Osceola, the American Indian chief.

ALAS, we are too busy.

We are all in the middle of work, in the middle of life. He wants to be here with us, not near the end of years, in a place where no one listens.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that he was looking for someone in South Tampa to rent him a room. He wants more, really.

HE WANTS someone to drive around Florida with him.

He wants to see Mexico.

He wants a person to notice if he's looking pale.

No one answered.

He understands. People are busy.

He's not desperate, not even broke. He has an apartment and savings. But he wants more than four walls. He's lonely.

FOREVER, he has traveled this state, using his Social Security money to buy harmonicas for strangers, because he thinks the world needs cheer.

He buys the harmonicas at Don Banks Music on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa, where I know, for a fact, the Banks family takes phone orders, $4.95 apiece, on Early J.'s behalf. I'll go a step further: The phone number is 872-6008.

"He's getting people to stop and smell the roses," says Mitchel Banks, son of the founder.

How can we stop? We are all so occupied.

IT'S SUNDAY, 8:22 a.m., five days into the new year. I am home, sleeping.

"Good morning, Miss Patty," he says into my office voice mail.

"I'm not going to say much. Sometimes, when I get started talking, I reckon I say too much. But I wanted to mention that my music and teaching have inspired and helped a lot of people. And I can still do that.

"ANYHOW, I'm needing some kind of help from either a practical nurse or someone who doesn't have to be a nurse. Since I have been doing the music, I just need someone that can help inspire me and help me some."

He starts to hang up, then adds this:

"Much good can be done yet, and I'm one that aims to do as much as I can."

WHEN the sad day comes that Early J. is no longer with us, we will mourn him. And we will curse the shortness of life.

-- Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard was once called Grand Central. Now Grand Central is a weekly City Times column. Writer Patty Ryan can be reached at 226-3382 or .

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