The Grocery Store Violinist
One Sunday last month began just like most have in recent months. I woke up feeling lousy; my body ached, my head hurt, and I still felt tired. Same old, and same goes for my mother. She has health issues of her own, but we try to make the best of the days we have left to spend together.
It’s just her and I now in our house that we share ever since my mom’s sister, the third member of our home, passed away last year. On the weekends we go for a drive just to get out of the house. Outside of direly necessary medical appointments, I haven’t been inside a public building since this pandemic began around February of 2020. Our weekends are spent trying to get our bodies in working order and feeling well enough to get into the car and take a trip around town to pick up some frappes and some essentials needed for the upcoming week. Then we go back home. It’s a simple existence, but it’s ours for now.
As per usual, we pulled into the Ralphs parking lot, and immediately I could hear something different… something that isn’t usually part of the background noises in that particular parking lot. Sounded like a low musical hum. I figured it was someone’s car stereo music muffling through a rolled-up window. We parked and Mom went inside the store.
I started to pan through my new Ulta magazine, which would usually capture my attention, but I couldn’t get past the first page because still, I could faintly hear this sound from somewhere off in the distance and it pulled my focus. My head suddenly perked up along with my ears when it dawned on me. It was a violin. Barely there, but there was no mistaking its moody tone and I had to find out from where it was coming.
When Mom got back into the driver’s seat of the car, I asked her to roll down all of the windows so we could try to listen and figure out where the instrument was coming from. We sat there, quietly trying to listen and heighten our senses as if we could. She started the car and we drove down a few rows until I finally found what I was looking for: there, next to a tree in the middle of the shopping center, stood a masked man playing his violin. It was a peculiar scene, though a welcome one.
Honestly, the first thing I thought of was Titanic.
Specifically, the scene where everyone’s running around freaking out because the ship is sinking, but the deck string quartet leader decides to continue playing through the chaos. True story (it is said the string orchestra on the real RMS Titanic played up until the very last moments of the ship’s sinking, and only stopped when it became physically impossible for them to continue to on any longer). This was the only thing running through my mind while watching this man.
We drove by once to listen up close. I wanted to hear more, so we drove by again, this time in the next row over so as to not scare the guy. When I say he sounded really good, I feel as if it’s a gross understatement. I’m no expert on violin music, not even close. But, I do know that this man was really good. He didn’t seem to be trying to entertain. He wore faded blue jeans, a grey t-shirt, and a baseball cap. His eyes were shut, and he seemed absolutely lost in song as he played there in the open-air theatre of his own making.
One other thing I noticed, and the thing about him that stood out the most was the one thing that wasn’t there. He didn’t have a tip jar at his feet.
That’s what got me thinking. What made him decide to scoot on down to the Ralphs parking lot this Sunday afternoon and play his violin?
We got home, and as soon as I walked into the house I was instantly filled with regret. I wished I had stopped to talk to him. I was curious. I wanted to know the story behind this parking lot violinist. My mom could tell it was going to bother me for the rest of the night, so she told me to get in the car — we were going back to Ralphs.
We again pulled into the parking lot, and even though it had only been about 25 minutes from the first time we left, I was afraid the violin man had gone. I couldn’t hear him anymore. We drove over to the spot where we’d left him the first time, and thankfully, there he was. I asked Mom to park a few rows over. I put on my mask, grabbed my pocket notebook and pen, and got out of the car.
As I moseyed over to his spot, I was nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before — not without synthetic courage anyway. As I walked up closer, I passed by slowly and continued on about ten feet beyond where he was stationed, then circled back a couple of feet towards him like an interested bystander. I felt like a total creepazoid, to be honest, but then I figured — eh, he’s out here playing obviously because he wants folks to hear him, so someone taking interest is kind of part of the territory, right…? I pushed past it.
He was playing a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and I waited for him to finish. I would’ve stayed quiet for as long as he continued playing. It felt like we were somewhere else for just a moment. Everything around us and all other sounds were silenced. I could see the breeze blowing through the swaying trees, but I couldn’t hear the leaves rustling. Just violin. It was all I could hear.
Cars were slowly driving by with piqued interest, and a couple of folks glanced over wondering what was going on, but I was too busy watching his bow fluidly draw back and forth and listening to the long, stretched sounds that came from just those small, quick movements. He had all of my attention.
The final portion of his song finished off with a slow shaky hum that grew softer as his bow went further along the played string until it eventually grazed into full silence. I suddenly felt panic rising. I didn’t know whether or not he was going to be angry at this random person (me) interrupting his grocery store jam session.
With his head tilted down and his chin still resting on the instrument, he looked up at me. It was very foreboding for a quick second. He then lifted his chin, placed his arm and the hand holding his violin down by his side, and with a kind smile he said a genuinely cheerful “Hi.”
I could instantly tell by the reassuring way he lifted eyebrows that he wasn’t upset at all, and my anxiety eased. I said hello and immediately told him how beautiful I found his playing and what a welcome sound it was to hear.
Standing the responsible pandemic protocol of six feet back the entire time, I introduced myself and told him how I came about hearing him that day. I told him I was curious as to what prompted him to come out that afternoon to play his violin. I asked him if he had a moment to spare, and if so I’d love to ask him some questions. He was happy to and said just the same.
The gentleman’s name was Andy. He was very polite and pleasant. I’d asked him what made him come out that day to play, and his first response as he kind of looked around the parking lot and then back to me was, “Well… because of Covid.” I nodded, awaiting his next sentence. I didn’t want to pry too much. I wanted him to tell me as much or as little as he felt comfortable sharing.
Andy carried on, telling me he was a music teacher and had been out of work since Covid-19 hit. It had majorly affected him, as well as his friends who are in the music teaching industry. He talked a bit about his students and how much he misses teaching them. Music lessons were one of the first things to go in the households of many of his students in order to help with their own families’ struggling finances.
Music is one of the things a lot of people have put on pause for the time being, understandably. To many, it’s not an essential or a necessity. But to others, like Andy, music IS life.
Andy then went on about how this town had saved him (again, I didn’t ask how…, I figured if he wanted to tell me, he would’ve). He kept pouring out praise for the people of this town and how when he came here — very much down on his luck — the folks here had been so incredibly open, warm, and welcoming to him that, now, he doesn’t want to leave.
He wanted to come out to play the violin for whoever wanted to listen. Partially as a thank you, and partly because he misses doing what he does best.
When we got a little further into the conversation, he confided that being out of work has hit him pretty hard, as it has with millions of people during this pandemic. I told him how I’d noticed he had no tip jar, and that’s what initially made me curious. Andy coyly said that he’d thought about it, but he’s too embarrassed to put out a tip jar.
This was such a small happening in the middle of this one Sunday afternoon, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. This man — he’s broke, out of work, fearful because he doesn’t know when he’s going to get back on his feet or what’s to happen next — he decided to play his violin instead of wallowing alone in self-pity. He chose to stand in the middle of a grocery store parking lot to try and bring a little joy and positivity to others in the midst of madness and heartbreak.
The world is our RMS Titanic right now, and he’s the much-needed band leader who won’t give up.
After a long conversation with Andy, it was time for me to go. I couldn’t thank him enough for coming out there that day and trying to uplift the spirits of others. He definitely lifted mine.
That was the first and only time I’d ever seen Andy, and I do hope he comes back. I wish there were more folks like him, and I told him just as much. Everyone can use a little help sometimes. Playing his beautiful violin was how Andy chose to help my town on that Sunday.