My wife has often said that I have a “European” sense of personal hygiene. My socks seldom match. I don’t iron my shirts. I stopped combing my hair around the time I successfully emerged from my 80s New Wave look. I don’t shave regularly.
It’s not that these are conscious decisions. It’s just something that slips my mind until I am rudely awakened. For example, one day last year, I got to church to practice. When I looked down to put on my organ shoes, I was greeted by this heterogeneous vision.
My fashion sense is sometimes the subject of casual teasing by friends and students. Last Halloween, a student came to the University dressed as me. She wore a wig with a frock of messy hair. Her socks didn’t match. I even let her wear my magical, ubiquitous, and coveted green sweater. The only problem with her ensemble was that she was wearing a white V-neck T-shirt. When I saw it, I said, “When have you ever seen me wear a V-neck T-shirt? I’m sure I would never do such a thing.” The reply came in a simple, honest tone. “I’m sorry Dr. Knecht, but it was the wrinkliest shirt I had.” "I see. Thank you very much." I replied.
The nadir of my apparel epiphanies occurred when I was working in a downtown church that was frequented by the homeless. We kept some food in the pantry to hand out to the needy, and at certain times of the day, I was the only staff member around that could help. One day, a handsome black man named Alvin walked in. I met him and immediately brought him into the sanctuary and played some Bach on the organ for him. I feel like if you are having a difficult time in life, you probably need some moments of beauty and not just food. Homeless people are generally very appreciative of moments of beauty and quiet.
After I finished playing, we began to chat. It turned out that Alvin wasn’t homeless after all. He just needed some extra food. I retrieved a few cans of soup from the pantry as we continued to chat. Alvin was beginning to feel comfortable with me, so he finally opened up.
“Kurt, what I really need is a ride. There are two churches that I know about that will give me an entire bag of groceries. It’s too far to walk. Can you take me there, and then give me a ride back home?”
It was just about time for my lunch break, so I agreed. When I got hired, the church had given me a used BMW 735il that was in very good condition. We drove along the bay for about 10 minutes, and soon came to a church that was a block from my old high school. I decided to accompany Alvin in on the adventure. We walked inside, and I sat in the lobby while he spoke to the receptionist. When Alvin finished speaking with her, he sat down next to me. She vanished for a few moments. To my great surprise, she reappeared moments later with two grocery bags full of food. She gave one to Alvin. The second one was placed at my feet. I looked up at her quizzically. She smiled and said, “This is for you.”
“Oh!” I said. “I’m OK. I was just here with Alvin. I wasn’t coming to get…”
Before I could finish, she smiled very kindly again and interrupted me.
“It’s quite alright. You really look like you could use it.”
I looked down and saw the unmatched socks and the wrinkled, un-tucked shirt. I realized my hair was uncombed, and my face was covered in at least three days worth of facial hair. It dawned on me that her conclusion was not all that unreasonable. So, I just went with it. I looked up gratefully and said, “I see. Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you.”
“It’s really no problem. We just need you to come over here and sign for the food. We use this system so that people don’t take more than one bag per week. You are welcome to come back next week and get another bag of groceries.”
“Thanks” I said, as I signed the form. We left the church, got into the BMW, and drove off. Alvin stopped in at another church. I decided not to accompany him inside this time. He came out with more food, and I took him back to his place in the ghetto. Naturally, I gave my bag of groceries to him.
It's a little strange to be directly and viscerally confronted with your own eccentricities. I immediately drove back to the church and practiced some Bach. It had a quiet moment of beauty in the sanctuary, and I said, "I see. Thank you very much."
For further reading on the topic of "The organist as social worker" click here or here.