They looked like Mumford & Sons. To be fair, any all-male British folk band in their mid-twenties, dressed in sweaters and tweed will forever look like Mumford & Sons. This group, however, especially looked like Mumford. It didn’t help that the lead singer was barrel chested and that they all had the same haircut, but they sounded quite good for a band relegated to covers and cobblestone performances.
One rare sunny English day I bought a pork sandwich and sat soaking up the coveted rays as the Mumford lookalikes ripped through soft-rock covers, adding banjo and upright bass. A small crowd of tourists gathered around and shouted suggestions or applauded familiar tunes. Their well dressed toddlers waddled forward to drop crumpled bills and pound coins into open guitar cases, earning a wink or a well timed hat tilt from the band.
It was the first time I had ever had applesauce on a sandwich and the first time in awhile that I’d sat still in the sunshine. We simply listened, even when the pigeons tried to steal our chips.
It was a solemn jig the small gypsy boy performed next to the train track. He must have been four, maybe five, with big brown eyes, and just the right ratio of smudged dirt to ruffled hair to land a National Geographic cover. His big brown eyes filled with melancholy as he sang a small song and danced a stumbled step and tried to sell off-brand travel packet Kleenex. It was a half filled train station and he performed individually for each us of seated on that bench.
It was heartbreaking and picturesque and it was terribly exploitive for those of us who missed a train and waited for a while, seeing him run back and forth to a group of older boys, empty his pockets, refill his Kleenexes again, and do the same performance.
I saw a middle aged woman with a kind, careworn smile hand over a few Euro and refuse the Kleenex. He insisted, she refused, and he insisted again, and her smile grew a bit sadder while he wandered confusingly to the next person. The next person said no to the Kleenex and the donation, and got a hand gesture that translates universally.
The concert violinist Joshua Bell once famously performed at in DC Metro station wearing a ball cap and playing a three million dollar violin. There’s a video. Almost no one stopped, and those who did paused only momentarily. Bell played to a sold out audience later that evening. Music critics and YouTube commentators alike were quick to use this social experiment as a take down of our fast paced modern society. Oh the degradation of our ability to pause for the present! they exclaim.
I’ve always been uneasy about that quick and nuance-less takedown. Modern man has many problems, to be certain, but I think it says more about the subjectivity of art than it does the human pace of life. If two or three had stopped, and stood, and waited, how many more would have gathered? How big of a crowd is needed to form critical mass of interest to the human psyche? How many passersby would stop for a few seconds to tap out the beat of a bucket drumline but don’t give a shit about Bach? How often do we have to be told about something’s value to find it valuable ourselves? Are we open to simply receiving clear and unexpected beauty, lightning bolt like, in the middle of our mundane and ordinary days?
We know life is fast paced. We all know there are distractions. Thoreau used to muse that people who wrote and received too many letters were culturally degrading. Self-absorbent—he said—these people left no time for introspection and were wrapped up with idle reading. The US Postal service is slowly ruining America. But maybe we’re all just the teenaged girl at the ticket counter who can’t appreciate the little boy who loves her.
This time there’s snow on the streets of York and a guy about our age stands in a cobbled square, surrounded by the ever-present pigeons, and plays his violin. There’s ice all around him, and breath is coming in white plumes. We stop though, because his playing is beautiful.
A small crowd gathers around, but maybe it’s just because he’s playing next to Drake’s, and there’s always a crowd lined up for the best takeout fish and chips in the city. He plays slowly, and it’s the type of tune infused with a few centuries of folk and pints of strong beer. We’re nodding our heads, ready to keep walking, and then he opens his mouth to sing.
We stop in our tracks. A beautiful Irish tenor, soaked with the type of melancholy that is equal parts hope and pining.
Oh, Danny boy—the pipes, the pipes are calling.
Spellbound, we stand in silence until the cold runs through our fingers and even the pigeons settle down in seeming reverence.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.