There is a wonderful loneliness that can settle into a church when you have spent several hours in solitude practicing some thorny section of a Bach Fugue. The tinted light from the stained glass dances around the high ceilings with the F sharps and the B flats. One afternoon after several hours of practice, I had worked myself into an eremitical splendor. I lifted my hands from the keyboard to begin a passage again when I heard an infinitesimally quiet, “Hello” from about ten feet to my left.
I turned, somewhat shocked, to see that a homeless man had wandered up into the gallery where I was practicing. It was not my first experience combining my position as an organist with that of a social worker. (You can read one of those episodes here.) I turned, looked at the stranger, and calmly replied, “Hello.” He was a short man of slight build. He was fairly clean and looked to be in his late twenties. He responded in great surprise, “You heard me?!” “Well, I’m a musician. We tend to be aware of sounds around us.” “I didn’t think anyone could hear me when I spoke that softly.” “Um…OK. I’m just practicing here. Do you like organ music?” “I’m Bob.” “Hi, Bob. I’m Kurt.” “Music is very powerful and spiritual. It has a strong affect on the I and I.” At this point, he began to mumble and I heard something about “Selassie”.
Whenever a mid-Western, white, twenty-something homeless man starts espousing Rastafarian doctrine, I get the sneaking suspicion that his mind might be more volatile than I anticipated. So, I said, “Well, this is an organ that’s modeled after a 17th century Italian instrument.” He replied with an incoherent thought that included something about “Zion” and “Jah”. I immediately decided to move our conversation to a more public area of the building. “Do you want some water?” I asked. As we moved toward the kitchen, I reminded myself to start locking the door that leads up to the organ loft for future practice sessions.
As we drank water, he continued to talk about how Selassie had changed the I and I. I hopelessly attempted to follow a train of thought that was having trouble staying on the rails. I offered him some food, but he said he wasn’t hungry. “Well,” I said, “is there anything that the I and I can help you with?” playing along for the fun of it.
In a stunning display of coherence, he said, “My main problem is that the probate court has declared me incompetent, so my parents have guardianship of me even though I’m 29.” “Really?” I asked attempting to sound as credulous as possible. “I just want to live in an apartment by myself, but they make me live in this home. I can’t get my money in the bank without my parents because of the probate court. So, I wanted to talk to the priest about vouching for my competency.” “Well, he’s not here today.” Unable to resist, I pressed the issue. “Um. Why does the court think you’re incompetent?”
Here he switched to what can only be described as a terrible Jamaican accent and said, “They don’t understand, mon. Just because someone starts wearing Rastafarian clothes, starts speaking in a Jamaican accent, mon, and changes his name to Bob Marley, mon, and only responds to people when they call him Bob Marley, mon, and when he does respond, he responds by quoting the lyrics to a song written by Bob Marley, mon, because he’s memorized the lyrics to all the songs that Bob Marley wrote, mon, because they speak to the I and I…just because someone dresses like and talks like Bob Marley, and makes people call him Bob Marley…that doesn’t mean that he believes that he is Bob Marley.”
After taking a moment to process everything, I said rather haltingly, “But…you can see why they might get confused…right.” It was of course the wrong thing to say. He immediately repeated the entire speech convinced of its inexorable logic.
“Well, Bob,” I said, “I have to go practice. You’re welcome to listen.” He declined.
I walked upstairs to the loft, turned on the organ, and immediately played “We’re jammin’” on a 17th century Italian style instrument.