Ed Sanders was one. Arlo Guthrie was another.
One day as I was working the register Arlo came in with an older gentleman, although he must have only been in his late 60s at the time. They bought a couple coffees--we were renowned locally in that age before coffee shops for our organic coffee--and were in the middle of conversation. But both had the grace to acknowledge me when they got to the register. Pete gave me that dazzling smile he always had and Arlo grinned.
I said, "That coffee's especially good today." Pete said, "Oh?" I said, "I made it myself. Nature's magic." Arlo said, "This is, um, Bob, in'tit?" I said yes and reached over to shake Pete's hand. It was gnarled and big and warm.
I said, "Actually, Pete, we met once before." He said, "Oh? Oh sure, you were on the sloop, weren't you?"
He meant his sloop, the Clearwater. I had, indeed, done a day's volunteer turn on it.
I nodded and he said, "A few years out now, wasn't it?" "About two," I said. Pete said, "You know, no one thought we would do much of anything with that old boat but with a little belief and hope we made a difference. Remember that, Bob. You can always make a difference."
He said a few more things but I don't remember much what they were. And I'm greatly condensing what I've written above. Arlo said a few things in there, too.
None of that is important. Here's what makes it a Pete Seeger story. I've met considerably fewer people in half the lifetime Pete lived and I can't keep straight someone I've met a few days ago from someone I met decades ago. Pete didn't remember me. Thousands, tens of thousands, of guys who looked like me and who didn't shuffled across the Clearwater's deck. It was no great prognostication in that town where someone wearing tie dye was probably concerned about the environment and that close to the Hudson River who suggested he'd met the most famous local environmentalist before had probably done so on the deck of his ship. But for a moment Pete made me believe I'd made an impression on him, that he'd remembered me, and that I was important enough to impart a little wisdom to.
But most tellingly, it was true that I was important enough for him to interrupt his conversation with his friend and spend a minute and a half talking with. That, even more than the nickel's worth of advice he gave me, is what I took from him. That everybody, even the guy you were giving fifty cents to for coffee, had an innate dignity deserving acknowledgement. A smile. A few words. A handshake and a chuckle. That's a lesson I like to think I pass on to everyone I meet. That they're worth my time.