It was dreadful. Just awful. But we had to walk that way to get to the best shops. Massimo Dutti, Boss, Armani and there was a deli nearby too which had sensational Jamon Iberico. So it was just too much bother to reroute and take the long way round. This meant running the gauntlet. The violin gauntlet.
Today was no exception. There he was. Of indeterminate age but maybe around 38, gnarled by too much sun and rough sleeping. He stood in the doorway of a closed shop and used his violin case as the collection box for the passers-by. He usually had a few coins but never any notes. Perhaps he gathered the notes together whenever they were offered. Maybe there never were any.
He held the violin in a quite unique way. In fact he had invented his own technique, but there was no question that a patent was in order. First off, there was his chin position. He chose to place his chin on the right side of the tailpiece with no supporting rest, which gave the instrument a strange downward slope, the fingerboard and scroll pointing at the ground. His fingers folded over the board bearing most of the instrument's weight and his very basic bow hold gave him the most limited range of sound. Then there was the repertoire. If I were a Rich Man. Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. And...his favorite. Somewhere Over the Rainbow. What he created was a messy, sprawling noise based on the aching deadness of out-of-tuneness. Sometimes he would try to bend the note but that only had the effect of heightening the out-of-tuneness, intensifying its ugliness.
Once we were having dinner seated outside in the lovely warmth of an evening at a great restaurant, enjoying some chilled white wine and beautifully fresh seafood. And guess what? He turned up with a guitarist collaborator and we were subjected to a fully accompanied version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Worst still was my wife's reaction to him. This was not centered upon his instrumental prowess or lack of it, but his physiognomy. She was convinced that he was the model for a Hitchcock TV show from the 1960s set in a tiny superstitious community in South America where a family kept their dead grandfather in the corner of the room. Very dark Hitchcock. The show ended with a full reveal of the grandfather's face. It was this image that not only remained in my wife's imagination but also actively reminded her of our violinist with his twisted toothless smile and eyes that stared into middle distance. However impossible the connection, the resemblance haunted her. We never once gave him any money. It was our punishment for his musical crimes.
The violinist gauntlet eventually became just part of the day and a sharp wince on the way to somewhere much nicer. It was never a subject of any discussion. It became background and was ignored.
Then it all changed.
We walked past the violinist's preferred performing spot and he was squatting, hugging his legs, swaying very slowly. His violin case was there open, with one or two coins but there was no violin. At last! He had been silenced. What joy. No more Somewhere Over the Rainbow, no more musical pain. There is a god and he has musical taste.
The next day when we walked past it all seemed very different. We missed his playing! I stopped and asked him where his violin was. He looked up but just shook his head. That face had changed. There was no longer any light in it. That way he had of being in the moment of his playing and loving it. A profuse beard had sprung up on his chin and he was obviously in a deep depression. His livelihood had disappeared. What had happened? We could only conjecture. Had the violin been stolen or had some gang attacked him? We will never know. What was to become of him? How would he subsist? Should we do something? Buy him another instrument? But we had never ever given him anything. That would be zero to 60 in a heartbeat. But our hearts had been touched by his most human dejection and unhappiness.
Two days later we walked past his spot again and there he was with a violin! I could see from its color that it was a different instrument although it had already acquired his trademark heavy dusting of rosin. But he was so happy. He was dancing as he played and smiling a huge beautiful happy smile. He was himself again.
Where did the violin come from? It didn't feel as though he had bought it. It felt like a present from somewhere.
Then we saw them.
Just across the street watching him play and dance was a young couple. They were dressed in the most chic casual style and they were smiling at him and at each other. He acknowledged them a lot. The man had one of those stylish beards 30-somethings seem to sport in Europe these days and she had deep, intensely intelligent eyes. He held her gently around the waist and squeezed her at those moments of joy expressed by the violinist. Theirs was a very young love and they wanted to share it. Their love for each other was still being created but they seemed to want it to include more than just the two of them. Love gave them a generosity of spirit. Energy. A worldview that touched every color, every possibility. It was the great privilege of youth to share their gift and create a better world. Not one consigned to the narrowest views of taste and selfishness and elitism and exclusion. Was that what we had become? Where were we in the world? Why didn't we love in this selfless way and make such a contribution to just one life's happiness?
We stayed with our route. The violinist was nearly always there. But now we smiled at him. Enjoyed his joy and gave him some coins and sometimes a note. He never acknowledged us though. Just stared through us listening to what he must have been imagining as his perfect musical sound. Just as he should. This violinist.