Debussy in a Basement

I was 20 years old in 1971, and went back to my home town, Monroe, NC, for the summer. I was living on my own, and rented a hotel room in the center square, a hotel that was occupied by those living on the fringe. But the rent was cheap. I found this 1918 photograph of the hotel, and even though the photograph dates back to 1918, I don't think it had changed that much when I moved there in 1971. 

Thinking that I might want to go to law school, I took a job just a block away at a local law firm where I ran leg-work, took depositions, visited the jail to get preliminary statements and completed random tasks. It would cure me of ever wanting to be an attorney.

It was common for me to enter and return to the hotel without speaking to anyone. I didn't want to engage. Often, I had my guitar with me that I would carry in a hard-shelled case. But no one bothered me and as long as I kept the door to my 10' x 10' room locked, I felt safe and slept well.

Because of the location of my room, I figured out how to get on the roof of the hotel in which I could sit almost directly across the courthouse clock across the street, drink a coke, eat some junk food, and reflect on my life. I loved that about living there. It was as though I had escaped into another realm where I could be free, if for only a couple of hours. No homework, no parents, no boss. I would make my way to the roof on a regular basis and just think. What am I going to do with my life so I don't end up being like the rest of these losers in this hotel?

One Saturday night I returned to the hotel around 11:00 PM and entered the otherwise empty foyer. As I was making my way around the corner to the elevator, I saw a familiar sight...the old man behind the desk...a man I never spoke to and avoided. He never spoke to me either, but tonight would be different.

"So, do you play guitar?" he asked.

"What a stupid question," I said to myself. Stupid or not my good manners and upbringing kicked in.

"Yes, Sir. I do."

"What kind of music?" he asked.

"Mostly James Taylor, acoustic stuff, finger picks."

"Do you read music?" he asked.

"No, Sir, I don't. I can read tablature. My mother tried to get me to take piano but that didn't turn out too well. Now, I wish I had stuck with it," I explained.

"I used to play the piano," he replied. "I was a piano teacher at a very fine school for many years until this happened."

I was skeptical. "This?" I asked.

"I became an alcoholic and lost everything. I ended up here."

"What did you play?" I inquired.

"My concentration was in classical music but I had many interests. I know you are heading up to your room but would you like to hear me play? There's an old piano down in the basement. It is not in very good shape but it works for me."

Suspicious, I looked around but felt no alarm. "If he does try something, I can take this old man," I thought to myself.

"Sure," I said.

We made our way down to the basement and sure enough, there was an old piano against the wall, ivory missing from about five of the keys. He sat on the bench and adjusted himself as I pulled up a rickety old chair. Not exactly a theater seat, but it sufficed.

And suddenly, without any fanfare or conversation, he began to play Debussy's Clair de Lune. I was mesmerized, fascinated by the face of this broken-down old man as I sat riveted in my chair. I could not believe what I was hearing.

When he finished, I said nothing.

"Would you like to hear another?" he asked.

"Yes. Yes, I would."

And so some time passed in that musty basement, and a million questions swarmed around in my head.

"Why don't you start teaching again?" I asked.

"It's too late for me," he said, "but at least I can come down to the basement when it suits me and play."

"How did this happen?" I asked.

"It was just life. I was very busy in my life with music, teaching and composing and I started drinking because of some family issues. Eventually, I lost my job, my family and pretty much lost my career and ended up here. But I kept a lot what I had written...would you like to see it?"

"Yes, I would," I said.

We went to his room where tucked away in the closest were stacks and stacks of sheet music he had composed. He shared his favorites and although I could not hear the written notes, my appreciation for him morphed into my compassion for him and I saw beyond the darkness and saw a talented man who had lost his way. But he was still a talented man. And following a conversation about music and life, I left. In all honesty, I can't say I ever saw him again. It seems that I remember someone telling me at the hotel toward the end of that summer that he had died.

I don't guess it is so strange that Clair de Lune is my favorite composition. On my Ipod, there is a 12 song Debussy playlist that has Clair de Lune performed by Ryo Yanagitani 12 times. I cannot hear Clair de Lune without thinking of that evening and everything I learned.

Perception is automatic and as far as we are concerned, accurate. But we must learn to see beyond the ordinary sensory world to tap into the extraordinary playing out of the human spirit as we are given countless opportunities to redefine and correct the faulty perceptions that plague our vision. All I saw were losers. After my time with the old man, I saw stories.

As Durckheim says in his 2007 book Way of Transformation,"Your enlightenment is but a slight shift in attitude." That old man whose name I never knew helped me begin to adjust mine.

Haydn's ThoughtsAshleigh Stoia