The Saxophone Player
If the city has a sound, it’s the shrill of the saxophone.
The sax is a wailing cry amidst the cries, a screech of spirit amongst the dispirited.
That day, a familiar tune echoed within the concrete caverns two blocks off Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. This wasn’t the carnival street of cotton candy and salt-water taffy immortalized in the postcards. Nor was this a good day to be outside. A feverish grey fog blanketed the city, shivering in a cold rain.
The moment of melancholy was made even more so by completely deserted streets, save for this lone visitor spending his final day in Atlantic City and the source of that marvelous pitch of the sax. Someone was giving the gift of a song. And my insatiable curiosity mixed with genuine conviction that any such a gift and personal sacrifice should be honored, motivated me to deviate from my path and discover who it was playing that saxophone.
Indeed, this would turn into my mission.
As I jogged through the falling raindrops and neared one of many cement alcoves fixed between two parking garages, the lost tune filling the air became more familiar. Finally, the song found a home in my state of conscious. It was Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
What an odd tune to hear on this dreariest of days. This wasn’t a place of rainbows. Nor was this a city of hope. It’s a song that implies tomorrow can be better than today. It’s a song which suggests the step ahead will be better than where we’re now standing. It’s a song of eternal hope and optimism.
Perhaps the surrounding made this moment all the more surreal.
The cold and bare concrete walls amplified what’s a beautiful song and made it glorious. The sound of a solitary soul blowing his heart into a musical instrument before no paying nor even listening audience was profoundly more powerful than the most celebrated symphony orchestra. This was someone who was playing music purely for music’s sake.
Whoever that person might have been was a living, breathing symphony of hope amidst too pervasive sadness, of optimism amongst doubt. And yet oddly, he was someone who probably annoyed others when he played at the wrong time and place. He most certainly would have been ignored by virtually everyone on any other day. You know those days, when we walk past — oblivious to the hidden treasures around us. But on this dreary afternoon, that song, played by that lone saxophone conveyed something more than a simple song or sound.
I wondered — who would sit outside on a bitter day like this, with the rain falling, and near-freezing temperatures? Why would a man sit and play, song after song, hour after hour — virtually the entire time with no audience and no promise that his passion would materialize into a few bucks or a cup of coffee?
Seeking an answer — this, I had to find out for myself.
Things are rarely as they seem.
And people are rarely what we expect.
I came upon the saxophone player. As he played and played some more, I stood mere feet away. He continued to blast every ounce of exhausted breath into that worn-out mouthpiece, failing to raise his eyebrow or acknowledge me in any way. There wasn’t a person on the streets. And even though I represented the only potential “paying customer” within a several city blocks, my presence had no effect whatsoever on the man or the music he played. As I stood and continued to listen, note by note he played with the same unwavering passion and intensity, and presumably would have done so whether I was there, or not. And, he played his song until the very last note almost as if his void of an audience would have accepted nothing less.
Sitting in judgement of this man seemed utterly perverse. But as humans, this is what we do. The saxophone player was perhaps 60, or maybe 65, or perhaps even older than that. Life had taken it’s premature toll on this body to be sure, but his spirit belied someone ageless. He played his music as if he were performing at Carnegie Hall his entire future lie ahead.
If the man made a powerful impressive, the sax was a virtual supporting actor. Take a look at the top photo. Were you not to hear music, you might surmise the man sitting next to a parking garage was boozing it up. He certainly looked the part of a drunk. But after listening to a couple of familiar bar, it was obvious this man was no derelict. This was not a man who wanted to take. Instead, this was a man who wanted to give.
The saxophone, the source of that stupendous sound, was wrapped up in a plastic garbage bag. The very comprehension of such a beautiful song shimmering from something so ludicrous as a plastic bag used for refuse seemed to underscore the irony all the more.
When the tune was completed, the man and I spoke.
“Everything has been taken from me. My music is all I have left,” the man said. “I’ve done some terrible things to myself. But this is something I’ll never lose and that’s my love for music.”
The man told me his story. Like many homeless people, he was once someone with a regular job. He made a good living and was what one might call — part of the middle class.
At one time, the saxophone player worked as an outboard motor mechanic. Given that he lived along the Jersey Shore, there was always plenty of work. But the man developed a drinking problem that ultimately cost him everything. Well — not quite everything perhaps.
The man admitted that he now has a bi-polar disorder. He now takes medication that controls his disorder. Trouble is, he can no longer work in his field. He can’t be a motor mechanic, which arguably makes sense.
Unfortunately, sensible laws designed to the protect the public have unintended and unfortunate consequences. Since he could not longer work in boat engines, he tried other jobs. But most places wouldn’t hire him, since he’s an admitted recovering alcoholic on medication.
So, the money eventually ran out and the man was kicked out onto the streets. And now with so many cuts in services, seven years later, he’s still on the streets. But he’s managed to survive. He’s keep the one possession that’s never left his side during all this time.
“People think I play music for tips. Or they think I play for them. I don’t,” the man said. “I play music for myself. I play because this is what I do and this is who I am. If God is listening too, then I’m playing for him.”
I asked the man if this is what he would call “a good day.” After all, almost no one was on the streets on this dreary Tuesday. It was 35 degrees and raining. Certainly, this couldn’t be a “good day.”
Or could it?
“Every day that I get up and can stay sober is a good day,” the man stated. “I’m here. It doesn’t matter at all if it’s raining or snowing or the sun is shining. I will tell you — this isn’t even a good day for me. It’s a great day. Everything is how you look at it.”
Any of my own self-pity was erased instantaneously. What can someone say after hearing that?
The man continued on.
“Let me tell you a story about why I am out here and why I do what I do,” the man said. With that as the preamble, the saxophone player conveyed a tale that would cause anyone to stop and think.
About five years ago, he was playing the sax on the Boardwalk. He was positioned out in front of one of the big casinos. At the time, Atlantic City allowed musicians and performers to set up along the busy Boardwalk. The man opened his sax case up hoping to catch a few coins and dollar bills, which would be a day’s pay for a day’s work.
Late one night, a man came outside. He sat on a nearby bench. This was a very sad man. This was a man who looked like he was in serious trouble. The man sat quietly and listened without saying a word to the saxophone. The sax played a familiar song. There was no particular reason to notice that sad man sitting on a bench on the Boardwalk that night. But that man would later return for an memorable encore.
A few years later, the sax player played from his usual spot and the same man who had sat on the bench that night two years earlier approached. According to the sax player, the man explained that the night a few years ago, he had gambled away what remained of his life’s savings. He was contemplating suicide. The man had lost everything and thought he had no reason to live.
But for whatever reason — the man walked out onto the Boardwalk that night. He took a seat and in that calm moment of solitude listened and reflected on what he’d done. He felt the notes of that wailing saxophone. Now two years later, the man had gotten back on his feet, found a job, and even remarried. The suicidal man had fully recovered and had returned to share his personal story of recovery with the saxophone player.
And so, what was the song heard by that man in despair that night?
That song was — Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Some time later as I unwillingly walked away, the sound of the sax filled the frigid air again. With each step the certainty of a fainter sound, the music became softer and quieter until it was finally no more. After two blocks, the only sound was of that of traffic and raindrops.
There was such a sadness attached to that silence. Especially so, now that I was deprived of unexpected joys and answers to insatiable curiosities.
I so longed to hear more. I needed to hear more. Much more. That extraordinary man — a homeless saxophone player — filled a few city blocks with joy.
He gave those he didn’t know a priceless gift, and that was the gift of hope.
All you had to do was stop and listen.