The Piano Man

By Christianos Burlotos


Image via No Name Press

I had noticed it before––the old piano, sitting in the corner of the room. Its worn, wooden bench poked out a few inches on the left side, as if inviting someone, anyone, to come and pull it out the rest of the way, sit, and exploit its timeworn sound. The fallboard was closed, hiding the precious keyboard, protecting it from the neglectful grip of the unconcerned coffee-drinker. On the shelf of the piano sat a flowerpot, featuring a lone, thirsty plant, just as brown as it was green.

I had noticed him before, too. He called himself Tass, although I didn't know it yet. He was black, about 40 years wise, and a large, woolen hat hid his short, curly hair and cast a shadow over his unshaven face. His musical style was unique––creative, yet revised, as if he had spent years perfecting his own sound––and it was fantastic. It wasn't quite jazz, but was too exciting to be classical. His fingers were slightly uneasy, though. They hit all the right notes, but in a minutely delayed manner, as if questioning every move. His fingers hovered over the keys for a millisecond longer than expected, noticeable to only an extremely keen set of eyes and ears. Despite the incredible music flowing from the piano, his hands seemed to lack the confidence his skill represented, as if he learned this art in a distant life, long ago. His eyes, however, told a different story. Unlike his wavering fingers, his eyes glowed with bliss. They shined with a combination of passion, love, and admiration, like the joy of a chef pulling his specialty from the oven or a mud-covered child carefully placing the last branch on his masterpiece fort. Their shine contrasted strongly against his sunken sockets and wrinkled face, indicating that he had seen far more and slept far less than your average middle-age man.

This time was no different. I sat across from a sullen man named Paul, who was telling his life story--from childhood to how he ended up in front of me that day, eating a free breakfast at Our Lady of the Road, the local outreach center that I volunteer at for my community service-based writing class. I was drinking thick coffee while his words passed right over my head. I nodded in agreement, smiled, and narrowed my eyes, as if I was intently listening to his next phrase. But I wasn't. My mind was elsewhere, focusing on the rise and fall of melodies coming from the opposite corner of the large, rectangular room. There he sat again, with the same ragged hat, the same tired face, and the same bright, electric eyes.

This time was different. I had to know, who was this man? Why does he come here to play? Where did he learn to play with such skill? I had to know. I downed the last few sips of the painfully black coffee, politely excused myself from my newest acquaintance, and wandered to the opposite corner of the room. Pulling aside a wooden chair, I sat next to the piano, looking up at his dark face and watching his constant, yet unsteady, hands intently. I attentively absorbed every musical lick, phrase, and chord that rang from that old piano and his long fingers. As the final chord faded, I worked up the courage to blurt out a compliment. He looked up surprisingly and smiled, as if he assumed no one was listening.

"Mind if I join you?" I asked before really thinking it through. He responded silently, with a smile and by moving to his left, allowing room for me to sit down next to him. I sat down without a sound, unsure of what I was getting myself into. Again, without speaking, he began to play. I studied his hands for a moment as they moved around the bass notes of the keyboard, but could not quite discern a special pattern or find the key in which he was playing. Not sure what to do, I began to play a jazzy melody on the high notes while he jammed on the lower notes. This continued for several minutes, but it never truly came together. Anyone listening would have surely recognized that we not were playing in the same key, conflicting rather than complimenting each other. Our separate melodies were exactly that––separate.

Recognizing this, he stopped and removed his hands from the keys. As I did the same, he introduced himself as Tass, an ex-professional musician with a bachelor's degree in music from Cameron University. He pulled down his shirt, addressing a long scar across his chest. He had received open-heart surgery several years back, which had taken with it part of his memory. It had taken him awhile, but he slowly regained some of his previous musical skills. His family owned a Gospel record label somewhere in the Southwest, but he wasn't in contact with them anymore.

During this discussion, I felt that he was different than most of the people in the building. He had a college education, had a permanent residence, made references to "watching out for" some of the other guys, denounced the violence of the kids in gangs, and said that he came to Our Lady of the Road to provide music for the people here. He opened up about his drug use, but said he had been clean for almost a year. He gave the impression of a wise father who just wanted to help. I felt that he didn't really need to be at the outreach center, but instead he just came because he wanted to. In fact, he invited me to see his band play at McCormick's on Monday night. He seemed so out of place there, at the outreach center. I was so convinced that this man was "normal" that I, living in my naïve Notre Dame world, even gave him my cell phone number when he asked for it so that he could let me know when his band has gigs. At the time, I believed he was more "normal" than anyone I had met at the outreach center, and it was a very comforting thought.

We soon returned to the keys, this time switching sides. As I began to improvise in the key of G on the base notes, Tass began to add a high melody, flowing to the beat I had just set. I moved from chord to chord, breaking them to provide both melody and harmony. My fingers flowed from note to note, utilizing all of the notes in the G scale. At first, nothing changed, as our sound resembled what it was––two unfamiliar people playing their own, separate parts on opposite sides of the piano. I was thoroughly disappointed. Although I'm not sure what I was expecting, I was hoping that we would have been able to at least sound decent together. However, the sounds coming from the piano were hardly music. But then, slowly, things began to click. I was continuing to play in the key of G when I noticed something remarkable: Tass had picked up on what key I was playing in! Despite zero verbal communication, Tass' melody had connected with my own, creating a harmony that rose and fall with a distinct, jazzy rhythm. It began to sound like music!

After several minutes of well-connected music, a man announced on a megaphone that it was time for breakfast. As we removed our hands from the keys, I looked up at Tass, marveling at the connection we had just formed. I could see how much happiness the music brought him, just as it brought me happiness. I was still astonished by the quality of music our duet was able to produce. For two complete strangers playing together for the first time, I was amazed at his ability to lock onto my own rhythm. As we looked for a table to sit down for breakfast, I could not help but smile as I thought about the new friendship that was just formed over the keys. Little did I know, for I could not have been more wrong.

During breakfast, I learned more about Tass' life. Despite his first impression of being a relatively normal and interesting guy, Tass was absolutely crazy. And I mean one hundred percent, without a doubt, flat-out nuts. He began to talk about his "boi Snoop Dogg" and progressed to discussing his 40 children with 40 different women all over the country––only one of which was a boy. He began to show me pictures of his "baby mommas," unfortunately including a few that he could have been arrested for showing me one year ago. He was recently released from prison after serving time for assault. Apparently he didn't know it was illegal to intentionally crash one's car for the sole purpose of throwing one's passenger through the windshield. Why on earth did I give this guy my phone number? He then began to discuss his band's gig on Monday, telling me that after the concert, they like to "go out back and box until the cops come." He offered to come pick me up at main circle, but after hearing the windshield debacle, I politely declined, telling him not to trouble himself, as I could just take a cab.

Then, as if I didn't already think he was insane enough, he invited his friend, a young white guy with a forehead tattoo of the Hindu god Shiva's all-seeing eye, over to our table. The obscene vulgarity of their inappropriate and degrading jokes completely disgusted me. Strangely enough, I even had to respectfully decline the enticing invitation to bring "all of my Notre Dame hunnies" to a party at Mr. Three-Eyes' house. Maybe next year, I told them. After over an hour of this stimulating, intellectual conversation, I was thankfully pulled from the table to help clean up. I gratefully excused myself and shook hands with my new friends. By the time I was done cleaning in the back room, they were gone. The entire day, I was silently praying that Tass had forgotten I had given him my phone number and would never call me. I was wrong, yet again.

I haven't seen Tass since, although he has contacted me. He called me later that night, telling me he would pick me up on Monday. I politely declined and told him yet again that I would rather take a cab. I called McCormick's to inquire about his band, holding on to a slight glimmer of hope that this man was not fully crazy. For some odd reason, I found myself hoping that the Tass I met behind the piano was the real Tass and that the second half of our conversation, the crazy half, was not reality. Unfortunately, McCormick's had no recollection of Tass or his band. In fact, they told me that Monday is actually karaoke night. I immediately blocked his phone number, although that did not stop him from sending me a Facebook friend request over two months later, which I also politely declined.

I often think about Tass. After our interesting encounter, I had no idea what to think. How could someone who seemed so normal turn out to be so crazy? How could I have been so naïve to think he was normal in the first place? And most importantly, how could I have been stupid enough to give this man my phone number? I have spent hours reflecting on this experience, and although I am still scared to go back to Our Lady of the Road, for fear of seeing Tass, part of me wants to sit down next to him at that old piano again. Despite the horror, and later humor, of the situation, I was honestly quite distraught at the progression of our encounter. I feel that Tass belongs behind a piano, not boxing in the street. Behind the piano, he was a remarkable man, whom I found inspiring. During my first encounter with Tass, my mind was working overdrive. I was piecing together what Tass originally told me about himself and combining it with everything that I wanted Tass to be, thus creating an image of this man in my head. When I discovered that Tass was not the man I had made him out to be, I was deeply saddened. I had invested precious time and thought into the idea of whom I thought this man was. My initial idealistic visions of playing next to Tass in front of audiences or even future duets at Our Lady of the Road were crushed as fast as they were created.

But why did I care so much? I did not give Mr. Three-Eyes a second thought, but I could not stop thinking about Tass. I had wanted him to be "normal" so much so that I was truly saddened by his craziness. What was I thinking? I had met the man at a free breakfast for homeless people. I was wrong to have envisioned anything at all. Jumping to conclusions about this man's "normality" was just as bad as sitting down with anyone else eating their free breakfast and automatically assuming he or she was a "loser." I realized that expecting this man to be "normal" was just too much to ask. While I always look for the best in people, this time my common sense was nowhere to be found. How could I have been so stupid to give a likely homeless man my cell phone number merely because he knows the notes in the key of G?

Despite this, the powerful connection the music created cannot be denied. When I first met Tass, I admired him. We both share a strong love for music, and his initial persona of resilience impressed me. Maybe I felt connected to him because of my past experiences with music. I have often coped with my own problems through the piano, using it as an escape from everyday life. Although I am sure that the severity of Tass' problems are much greater than mine ever were, his electric eyes told me that he too found heartfelt joy in the piano. When their glow was compared to the entirety of his somber expression, it was clear to me that this man was using the music to escape from something greater as well.

Then I made a notable observation: it was not until the piano was taken out of the equation that Tass became the crazy man he really is. But what if that is not who he is? What if the real him was the Tass that sat behind the piano, and the drugs, prison, and his memory loss created the other Tass? I often hope that this is the case. When I came to this hopeful realization, I began to find peace in the situation and truly respect the power of music. Not only did the music help this man anchor in his old self, but it also connected two completely opposite people from completely opposite walks of life. If music could do this in a matter of minutes, I believe it could do even more for Tass. I often pray for him, because I truly believe there is hope for him. I hope that he continues to come to Our Lady of the Road to play that old piano and feel the power of the music he creates. I hope that the connection to his old life does not end when his fingers leave the keys. Most importantly, I hope that one day he hits a note that rings deep within him, triggering the return of a memory or thought that was stolen several years ago during his surgery––a memory that will make him realize where his life once was and notice where it has gone. I hope that the music, whether his own or that of others, forms this connection inside of him and allows him to leave this new life behind. I often marvel at how that old piano connected two people with such different lives. If music can create that relationship, then it can also connect Tass with his old life. The power of music is similar to the greater purpose of the service itself, as it was through that old piano that I truly connected with Tass.