In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is handed a shotgun and calmly drops a mad dog. His daughter Scout thinks something like, whoa, what just happened? She had never seen a gun in the house, much let alone in her dad’s hands. She did not know her father had been a dead shot from his youth.
I lived for a time in Edmonds Washington – in the bowl. Weekdays, I worked with extracted body parts in a medical facility. There was no refreshment I loved better on a weekend than to walk the half mile to the beach-the edge of the sound-the freedom of a ferry port that could take you away on a moment’s notice.
On the beach was a small quirky thrift store that supported the attached senior citizen center. I was 55, so in a way I qualified for all the benefits. The center boasted a vintage linoleum tiled dance floor / concert hall and a cafeteria that hosted Grey Gourmet a few days each week. But it was the thrift store that could distract me – at first.
One Saturday as I browsed the blouses, books and unique kitchen gadgets assembled, I heard live music – a guitar, a mandolin – coming from the regions beyond retail. I picked my way to the hall that accessed the curtained restroom stalls and passed beyond to the next available room. I poked my head in the door to listen. “Hi!” called the guitar player and evident leader. “I heard the music,” I stated.
“We’re a seniors oldies band. We practice every Saturday morning.” I smiled.
“Are you a musician?” For the next 90 minutes, Vern called chords and I played along to some Elvis songs and other oldies I had never heard before. Hits caught in the gap between my mother’s generation and mine. On my way back home, I mused, “Whoa, what just happened?”
I practiced with the band for a couple months before my departure for Colorado. We played a Sunday dance or two in the ballroom – fish bowl conspicuous. My portion of the take was $3.00.
On an odd midweek day off I strolled Olympic Beach unshowered and barefoot with my corduroy pants rolled up a la Tom Sawyer. Suddenly, a voice hailed from the observation deck of the senior center. It was Craig, the 91-year-old ladies man from the Sunday dances.
“Cherry! Cherry!” He called, “am I glad to see you! Come in, come in quickly.” I obeyed. “Come. See the piano. We always have sing-along before our meal on Tuesday. Our pianist did not show today.”
Turns out Craig was the leader of sing-along. The usual pianist was retired after years of pleasing crowds in Branson. The darkness of dementia had overtaken her. Some days she forgot which song she was playing and launched into a medley. Sometimes she simply forgot to show-up. The seniors gathered around the piano and commenced the enjoyment of oldies I didn’t know and harmonies with which I was intimate. 20 minutes later the Branson pianist arrived, taxied by a daughter my age. I graciously took my leave. On the walk home I murmured, “What just happened here?”
I never quit on my music. Invited, I will play any piano, anywhere, any style. Whatever style I am playing at the moment is my favorite style of music. There have been nursing home gigs, years of folk music with elementary kids, decades of private students and plenty of church praise and worship. There are intervening years of enjoyable jobs that seem to have nothing to do with music on the surface, but are inextricably woven to music via location – the beauty and inspiration of a dock on the bay or a Rocky Mountain high.
So recently, I have found myself moonlighting with a John Denver tribute band. Evenings, I keep my habit of enjoying an hour of piano before bed. On my days off, I practice feverishly. The John Denver originals are familiar friends. The current pieces, written in a style and spirit honoring John Denver, can be quite intricate and challenging. Just this week, I had a break-through with a lead-in reminiscent of the Eagles and Desperado.
Quiet joy, like happiness, overtakes you when you least expect it. Rising from the piano bench I muttered, “Whoa, what just happened?”