MOSCOW — On random afternoons when the weather is nice, Friendship Square flutters with melodious whistles as a black cat on a leash lounges in the shade.
Her name is Muffen, and her owner, Talan Wilhelm, is improvising as he plays the recorder. Wilhelm travels all over the Western United States, but Moscow has become one of his favorite places to stop and share his music.
“People, they don’t look at me like I’m homeless or down on my luck,” said Wilhelm, 36. “They look at me like I’m a human being.”
The kindness is perhaps a reflection of Wilhelm’s own.
“If you treat one person with kindness, he’ll treat five people with kindness, and those five people will treat five other people with kindness, and it grows from there,” he said. “Kindness spreads a lot faster than meanness does. I’ve learned that through my music.”
Wilhelm was born in Wenatchee, Wash., but would not grow up there. His parents came into some “problems” in Reno, Nev., and Wilhelm was placed in foster care at the age of 5.
It’s not an incident he likes to talk about.
“Sometimes, that kind of thing, you just have to let go in order to get over it,” Wilhelm said.
When he was about 6 years old, Wilhelm was adopted, but it didn’t work out and he would not grow up there, either. Life in foster care ended up bouncing him around Nevada, Washington, Colorado, California and Utah — including another stint in an adoptive home there from the ages of 9 to 12.
Throughout his youth, Wilhelm struggled with anger and issues with authority.
“I didn’t know how to talk to people,” he said. “I didn’t know how to express how I felt. It got me in a lot of trouble.”
It wasn’t until he arrived at the Colorado Boys Ranch, a residential care facility for troubled foster children, that Wilhelm’s take on life started to shift. The ranch has since closed.
That’s where he met Chaplain Rodger Harris, who had lost functionality on one side of his body after a battle with polio. Along with his faith service, Wilhelm said Harris was also an “awesome gardener” despite his limitations.
“He taught me that no matter how crappy life can be, as long as you have a positive attitude, you can get through anything,” Wilhelm said.
About 13 or 14 years old at the time, Wilhelm first picked up a recorder in a music program at the boys ranch. He learned the lower registers in about six months and then taught himself the higher registers.
The recorder became a cash cow by the time Wilhelm was 16. He was living at a “horrid” independent-living center in Las Vegas when he decided to run away to Seattle, where he first started playing his music on the streets.
Over the past 20 years, Wilhelm has busked on and off, along with odd jobs in construction, truck driving, cooking and auto mechanics. He’s played music from Seattle to Spokane and from Los Angeles to Denver. He’s written six songs for his instrument, most of which are on his latest CD, titled “Love.”
There have been roadblocks along the way. Wilhelm got into alcohol and drugs, with heroin taking a wake-up call for him to quit.
“I had somebody that was close to me pass away because of it, and I was there to witness it,” he said. “It changed my look on how I should be living myself.”
He was able to kick the habit by the time he turned 24.
Wilhelm’s life took another turn six years ago, when he met Muffen.
She was a 7-week-old kitten in a cardboard box in the back of a green van, one of many kittens a woman in Colorado was giving away for free. The woman placed Muffen on Wilhelm’s shoulder and told him to walk away with his new cat.
“We’ve been together ever since,” he said.
Around the corner at a coffee shop with a banana nut muffin, Wilhelm intended to feed the kitten the wet food he’d bought.
“When I got out of the bathroom, she’d eaten the entire banana nut muffin,” he said. “I said, ‘You ate my muffin, you silly little cat.'”
She meowed as soon as Wilhelm said “muffin,” and just like that, the kitten earned her name.
Muffen travels everywhere Wilhelm does, along with the few necessary items he stores in his 1992 Ford Tempo. He lives on about $50 a day, and if he makes more than that, he saves it for down the road — whether he or a stranger needs it.
Wilhelm shares photos from his travels on Facebook. When he revisits his favorite towns, he always finds people who welcome him back.
“The greatest success of my life is still being alive to share it with others,” Wilhelm said.
Originally published by the Lewiston Tribune on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016.