Homeless at the Piano

The other day I was leafing through old WordPress posts, after Ashley Peterson submitted an intriguing post around the concept of editing past material. It didn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my older posts reflected a different spirit or attitude than I have today. Therefore, outside of minor edits (spelling, grammatical, etc.), I decided not to edit my content. It would seem hypocritical of me to do so, even if I disagree today with what I wrote back then.

One thing that glared was how much black-and-white thinking there was back in those days, and how I would often hyperbolize for the sake of emphasis, in a way that could easily have belied my statements. For example, at one point I wrote something to this effect:

“Here in my new life, lots of people like to listen to me play the piano. When I was homeless, the only people who ever cared about my music were other homeless people.”

This is both black-and-white and hyperbolic. While it is true that most of the people who cared about my music were homeless, it is not true that nobody who lived indoors didn’t care to listen. Also, it’s natural that most of my listeners were homeless, simply because I myself was homeless, and I mostly hung out with homeless people.

Let me tell you a story that exemplifies this.

Piano Key- Middle C In Grunge Stock Image - Image of black ...

We who were over 55 had the privilege of hanging out at the Senior Center, where there happened to be three pianos. In the morning, I would sign in, and head for the Baldwin upright in a distant room in the corner of the building. I did this for the sake of privacy, because I was afraid of making too much of a scene at the other two pianos, where I could more easily heard. I didn’t want somebody to tell me to stop playing, because I might have been making too much noise.

Next to the little room on the corner was a room with a number of pool tables. Early in the morning, a group of people who happened to be almost entirely African-American homeless men would congregate to play pool.

Naturally, they would hear the piano, and sometimes come into the room to listen. I remember playing the jazz break in the song Skylark, and looking up and a man was smiling, snapping his fingers. Another time, I looked up after the song, and five Black men were clapping wildly outside the door.

Of course, this was gratifying. Every musician loves an audience.

But one day, I went to the piano at eight in the morning as usual, and there was a sign on the door of the adjacent room, to the effect that it was closed for repairs. But something seemed odd. It didn’t really seem like anything needed repair, nor was anyone repairing the room.

Disgruntled, I approached the front desk and spoke with one of the administrative aides, whose name was Laura.

“Why is the pool room closed?”

“Uh – the guys were making quite a ruckus, and they kinda smelled of alcohol, and they were starting to get a little loose with our property – and you know, we had to shut it down.”

“But Laura, you guys just took my audience away!”

“What do you mean, Andy?”

“Those guys were always clapping for me, and cheering, and all that! Now I don’t have anyone listening!”

“Well Andy, why you just play the Yamaha in the auditorium near thhe main dining area?”

Puzzled, I replied: “But then you guys are all gonna hear me.”

“But Andy – we want to hear you!!”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling strangely enlightened. “Well, in that case, I guess I’ll play.”

Long story short, it wasn’t too much longer before a number of Senior Center employees were sitting in the auditorium with their smartphones and tripods, filming a concert that I performed at the North Berkeley Senior Center. In fact, I played the music to Turns Toward Dawn at that concert, though the lyrics were not written till 2018, when I was already in Moscow.

I believe I still have the videos to that concert in storage somewhere. I might fish them out at a later time. But I gotta be honest with you — when I look at the man who played that concert, he does not look like the man people look at today. I easily looked ten years older than I do now. (Why my posture was better, I have no idea.)

All vanity aside, what is your take on all this? I mean, sociologically? Psychologically? It seems a bit unusual that I would have restricted my musical offerings to other homeless people. I have my theories, but it would be interesting to hear yours.

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6 thoughts on “Homeless at the Piano

  1. Your posture was better because you were not able to sit as much. My posture improved radically when I was staying home with kids more, headaches all but went away, aches vanished. Sitting at a desk is a slow and painful death.

    I do think it’s interesting why you were shy to play for a non-homeless audience – but it also makes a lot of sense given how easily & often you were shunned. You expected to be told to go away so you acted in accordance with that belief. There’s a lot of applicable truth in that realization – we act according to what we think/believe – not necessarily in line with reality.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting about the posture. I’d never thought about it, but it makes sense. If I sat down, it certainly wasn’t for hours on end in an executive chair. More like sitting on a sidewalk, or an occasional hard chair at a church dinner. And I exercised a LOT.

      I do remember sometimes approaching a piano after a feed in a church and playing, only to receive a reprimand from an official social worker. When homeless people heard my music — prior to the Senior Center and later when I began to accompany the Wednesday evening spaghetti dinners at a Lutheran church — it was often only the guitar. Of course the atmosphere among the homeless was “looser” than that of the people who were trying to help us. Social workers tended to be overly conscious of rules and regulations, and the atmosphere at feeds often seemed rigid and unswerving.

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  2. If you perceived that non-homeless people tended to view you as a piece of shit, restricting your musical performances may have been a way of keeping that taint, so to speak, from spilling over into the musical aspect of you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Actually I remember that when I “advanced” to the position of playing piano for non-homeless people in the auditorium, there was a sense of an “upstairs kick.” Maybe God was trying to tell me that, though I didn’t think it was proper for me to appear somewhere above my station, it actually was all right. I remember “hiding my light under a bushel” for a long time down there. The Senior Center and the Lutheran church I mentioned above gave me a kind of “rite of passage” back into the mainstream of modern American life. Blessings – you as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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