A few weeks ago, I was getting ready to leave my office, when I heard a knock on the front door. I share space with a group of local non-profits, so normally if someone knocks they want to drop off an item for one of those other groups. To my surprise, on opening the door, I was greeted by an unkempt middle-aged man who had tears streaming down his face. (I’ll call him Bob, although that’s not his real name.)
Bob told me in a torrent of words that he had been sober for seven years until that very week, and he needed help.
It just so happened that a local 12-step group already had a scheduled meeting for that very evening on the main floor of our office space. It’s possible Paul heard about it at some point, but he didn’t seem to be aware of that. It looked to me like Paul hadn’t showered or shaved or changed his clothes for days. And I smelled liquor on his breath.
I asked him inside, wondering if he’d driven to our office and hoping to stall him long enough for someone from the 12-step group to arrive. I told him about their meeting and offered to wait with him until it started. He more or less agreed, but I’m not 100 percent sure he was aware of what I had said.
It may have been the alcohol and it may have been a supernatural sort of thing, or both, or neither, but Bob stood there and poured out his heart to me. Although he told a disjointed story, it was clear something had recently gone wrong in his life to lead to his binge. “I f—-d up! God, please forgive me. Ah, f— me,” he kept saying over and over.
What happened next amazed me.
On the main floor of our office space there’s a piano, which is sometimes used for small community concerts. When Bob saw the piano, he did a double take and gasped. “Can I play your piano?”
I admit my first reaction wasn’t a positive one. “Well, it’s not mine, it’s for the community to use. Why don’t we go have a seat in my office?”
But Bob had already lowered himself onto the folding chair/piano bench next to the piano, and was awkwardly trying to pull the dust cover off the piano.
I decided not to try to stop him — no need to get aggressive with someone in Bob’s condition, I thought. “Here, let me help you with that,” I said. Together we removed the cover. Then Bob lifted the keys cover or whatever you call it.
He cracked his knuckles, and began to play. I recognized the tune. Something classical — I didn’t know what it was called or who composed it — but Bob was good. Really good. “Want to hear some Beethoven?” he asked. I nodded mutely, still somewhat in shock. He flowed right into a different classical-sounding piece, that I guess Beethoven wrote. Then he stopped and cursed and cried some more. “How about some Mozart?” he said.
“Sure, you’re really good, Bob. How long have you been playing the piano?” I asked.
“Oh, a looooong time,” he replied, and then he started another piece, this time more modern sounding.
Bob was no concert pianist. I’m not a musician, but even I noticed when he made a mistake here and there. I suspected his swollen and unwashed fingers didn’t have their former dexterity.
He alternately pounded and caressed the keys until I lost track of time. He had just finished playing something really upbeat, ragtime maybe?, when George, also not his real name, arrived. We all introduced ourselves, and I learned George helped lead the 12-step group. I asked George to join me in the kitchen. I whispered to him what I knew of Bob and George said he’d take over from there, so I thanked Bob and quietly let myself out, thankful for my own private concert, and even more thankful Bob was in a safe place where he could get the help and support he needed.