Happiness is when you come upon a bike rider who stops to play Bohemian Rhapsody by heart on a public piano. And then I got to thinking about this old post, and its possibilities:
So I ran into a man playing a public piano at the Arts Center MARTA transit station, right in the shadow of the Atlanta Symphony’s performance space at the Woodruff Arts Center in Midtown Atlanta in the United States, whom I hadn’t seen since last summer. As I approached, I exclaimed, “Mr. Lester!” He had sunglasses on, as usual, and I didn’t notice the tears in his eyes until I got closer, until we talked and he took them off, until he told me that he considers himself to be a nobody and that he doesn’t even know where his next meal is coming from and then out of nowhere I showed up and remembered him and said his name.
He had me pull up one of the colorful chairs in the newly redesigned “Front Porch” plaza where MARTA is encouraging more hanging out and interactions among strangers. He played me three songs, including a beautiful one he wrote. He told me how one day he was playing when suddenly someone started playing along with him and he looked up to discover a famous recording artist. That made him feel really good.
We talked and talked and talked. I consider our conversation private so I won’t give any more details. I’ll just tell you this: I have come across so many men (in particular) who seem to be homeless who have more musical talent in their pinky finger than I have in my whole body. These public pianos give them access to equipment they simply could not access otherwise. And their extraordinarily beautiful expressions of art have the potential to heal and to help not just themselves but others. In fact, read what happened to a man who was homeless in Sarasota, Florida, one year after he was discovered while playing a public piano.
Public art crosses borders, ages, genders, ethnicities, socio-economic levels, sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, and political viewpoints. It inspires thought and provides multiple entry points into the human conversation, while letting each of us “take what we like and leave the rest” (as my mother always said to do). I’m not saying shining a light on the homeless will change their lives (but it could). I’m just saying maybe it’ll change the way others see them. Maybe it’ll change the way we view the value, the necessity, the universality, of all types of art in our society. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll make us all a bit better.
And so, I got the obvious idea that wouldn’t it be something if there could be a public piano concert, specifically featuring those in transient living conditions. Perhaps a famous recording star or two could help out. Perhaps a CD from the concert could help raise funds to be used to provide MARTA train/bus cards to those in need (maybe by reloading cards collected in a drop box at the airport from travelers who no longer need them — see my Breeze to Share idea). Perhaps I could take photos and write short profiles* of any participant who is comfortable with that, and this could be displayed on “The Front Porch” so that they can be a celebrity for a little while, so that they can be “someone.”
I already contacted the Midtown Alliance and the local public piano organization (although they are not the ones who provided or manage this particular piano). All I have is a big idea and a willingness to help. Stay tuned to see what happens next.
* Many of these men could be considered self-taught “folk artists” like the celebrated folk art (although with music) prominently displayed across the street at the High Museum of Art. For instance, Mr. Lester grew up in Louisiana and taught himself to play the piano in darkness, like Ray Charles.