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Oxford man strums on the street to survive

Plop. Ching. Coins tumble into John Flinders’ open guitar case. Two quarters this time — not bad.

Flinders is in his late 40s and has been playing his guitar on High Street for four years. His guitar is battered and his clothes are torn and grey. A too-small zip-up hoodie stretches around his broad shoulders. The shredded tassels of his too-long jeans dangle around his old work boots.

His face is tanned and weathered like that of a sailor, with sparse grey stubble poking out of his chin and cheeks. His deep-set eyes are difficult to find, yet welcoming and warm. 

He sits on High Street, Oxford’s busiest pedestrian area, and strums for the Miami students walking by. He’ll play the hits like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that he hears echoing out of bars, but he writes his own songs, too.

The latest Flinders record reminisces about a woman he saw strolling past last week. She dropped him a dollar and flashed him a smile, and he was in love. (At least for the sake of the song, anyway).

He writes songs like this all the time: recounting the random interactions he sees Uptown or things he sees on the drive home. 

Songwriting helps take his mind off the harsh reality that he’s not driving back to a home, but to a parking spot in front of a motel with a crushed beer can in the middle of it. 

Flinders lives in his car.

“I wasn’t always homeless, obviously,” he says, looking down at his sparsely filled guitar case. “I actually had a pretty decent place before I lost my job.”

Flinders used to be a carpenter. “Still can be,” he’ll tell you. 

“Just lost the title, not the skill,” he laughs. “Yeah, I was a little drunk one day and cut my finger pretty bad. Boss didn’t like that much.” 

He flips his hands over in front of him to check which one again. Old cuts and nicks are a testament to his working days. They match his newer guitar string calluses well.

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He traces the thin white line wrapping nearly all the way around the middle of his left index finger.

“That’s the one,” he says. “Not too pretty.”

The Butler County native has been homeless for seven  years now. In the beginning, he packed as many belongings into his car as he could. He stuffed the backseat with clothes and bedding and photos and keepsakes and food, only to realize he had nowhere to sleep.

“I always told myself I’d need it, you know, in case of this or that, or for when I find a new place,” he said. “But it’s pretty tough to pay rent without a job.”

Those were bad nights. Constantly shifting in the seat and not getting any sleep. Light from passing cars shining into his eyes. Waking up too fast and whacking his head on the door.

Eventually, he donated his things to Salvation Army and moved into the back seat.

“That Salvation Army is actually where I got this,” he says, patting his beat-up acoustic guitar.

He started performing on High Street not too long after, thinking he could earn some money for food and laundry that way. 

“I don’t make much, but it keeps me fed for the most part,” he said.

Tonight, he’s playing an original song in front of the U-Shop, a liquor store. Students stream steadily by on their way to bars and restaurants, a few glance his way. 

It’s been a slow night for tips.

He plays on, tapping his scuffed-up steel-toe on the concrete.

An older man comes out of the liquor store and fumbles with his wallet. He drops a dollar into the guitar case and tells Flinders to have a good night. 

A smile creases Flinders’ tired face. It is a good night.