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David Cook
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Not long ago, I heard of a Chattanooga man who bought season tickets to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Why? One reason. When a touring "Hamilton" comes to town — 2019? 2020? — he'll already have tickets.

Yes, apparently, the musical is that good.

But it's not only "Hamilton." America is witnessing the revival of musical theater, a new Golden Age. On TV, "Glee" gave way to "Nashville," and then "Empire." I'll lay odds that the upcoming "Beauty and the Beast" will be one of Disney's top movies. Broadway's seeing some of its highest-grossing seasons ever.

And, my gosh, "La La Land." The almost-Best Picture is a treasure, a cinematic blessing. Several times during the film, I whispered to myself: this is why I come to the movies. If you haven't yet, go.

And cheers to the Tivoli Theater, which has been landing some of the best theater-sized concerts our city has seen in a long time, including the recent Broadway series: "Chicago" and "Dirty Dancing" earlier this season, with "Annie" and "Riverdance" still to come.

Wednesday night, we went there to see "Rent," the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about AIDS, addiction, art and how not to sell out. Based on Puccini's "La Boheme," the musical is set in mid-1990s New York City, with Bohemian squatters and artists trying to make sense of how to love the people around them.

Which brings me to this column.

After "Rent" ended, we walked out into the downtown night. Just outside the Tivoli, a man was bumming for change. He's a downtown familiar: no legs, in a wheelchair, he had his hat in hand while playing some flimsy tune on a harmonica or kazoo, I don't recall which.

He was panhandling, asking for money, for who knows what.

I looked at him.

He looked at me.

I kept walking by.

My wife kept walking by.

And all the people around us kept walking by.

The sad irony of it hit me a block later.

We'd just spent $100 on tickets to standing-ovation a play about fictional starving artists, yet when we actually encounter a starving artist, we ignore and cold-shoulder him.

Oh sure, I had excuses: he'd use it for drugs or booze or something. And it's my money, anyway. Not his.

Right?

On the eve of Lent, Pope Francis gave an interview in which he said this: give to anyone who asks. If you see the homeless poor, just give. Don't worry about the rest.

Giving to "is always right," he told Scarp de' Tenis, a magazine for the homeless in Milan.

Always right.

Always right?

Logically, my brain backfires on this advice. What if harmonica man's using it on whiskey or needles?

The pope smiles and shrugs.

"That's OK," he said, adding that if the homeless spend your money on wine — the perfect example to tell his Italian interviewer — then why deny them that pleasure?

"Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What 'happiness' do you seek in secret?" the pope said.

Giving, and not-giving, both help define my relationship to the world. One opens me up; the other, shrink-wraps me in. All the spiritual giants were generous, reminding us that giving reflects an old truth: nothing we own is really ours. We're here momentarily, our lives, well, like rent.

"Yes, I give to everyone — everyone I meet in person — without considering what the asker might do with what I have to give," said Rebecca Whelchel. "It's none of my business."

Whelchel runs Metropolitan Ministries, our city's emergency room for the poor. Each day, it meets dozens of needs — utility bills, food, medicine — for dozens of clients, some of whom line up well before dawn to secure a place in line.

Yet even on her own time, Whelchel gives, which she admits is as much for her as anyone.

"Does it make me feel good to give or to help? Not really, but sometimes. Does it make me feel bad not to give or help? Yes," she said. "I'd rather feel good than feel bad. So I'm selfish and the first to admit that there is no true altruism."

Whelchel is one of my local heroes; the Pope, an international one. Both are saying the same thing.

We measure our life by the way we treat others.

"Measure in love," the cast of "Rent" sings.

***

Speaking of giving, so many of you have supported the re-emergence of baseball at The Howard School.

As a reminder, the team's first home game is Monday at 5 pm.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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