The Accordion Man – A Possible Metaphor for Tolerance

Outside the little office that I work in, there’s an accordion man who turns up with unerring regularity and sits on a box. He straps on his accordion and he plays in the hope of garnering some spare change from the people who shuffle past.

He drives me mad. For a long list of reasons. 

Firstly, he tends to play the same stuff over and over. He knows lots of different tunes but, whatever he’s in the mood for on that day, he’ll just keep playing it. 

He tends to favour variations of a series of movie themes like ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’ and ‘Mission Impossible’. His audience are all passers-by (except me) so nobody ever really notices this incessant repetition (except me). 

Then there’s the customisation job he has done on his accordion. He’s duct-taped a Melodica down the side of the keyboard and attached a pipe to the mouthpiece so he can accompany himself while accordioning. It’s completely unnerving.

Also he only tends to come on the nice days. Days when I would like to have the window open. I guess it’s hard to play the accordion in the rain. The squeezey-parts must get all soggy and_ I Don’t Care! I have to close my window whenever he turns up because I can’t hear myself think and then I have to stew in my little room and I can still hear him and… and…


Finally he stays far too long. If he came and did this for a couple of hours and then moved elsewhere, I wouldn’t mind so much. But it must be lucrative outside my window. There must be some seriously deep-pocketed types sidling past out there because he stays and stays… and stays.

I hate him.

From my distance of about 50 yards, from my first-floor-looking-down vantage point, I hate him. I hate to hear him coming and the first dreadful notes of his hashed-together crap instrument. I hate that I have to slam my window shut and turn my radio off because I can’t abide hearing two things playing at once. It’s a deep personal hatred that I feel for this man.


But here’s the thing…

At one o’clock every day, I go out of my office and I go across to the supermarket for a roll to bring back and eat at my desk. On the way, I have to walk past the Accordion Man. I always say ‘hello’ and he always stops his playing and says ‘hello’ back. I see him around town with an elderly guy who I guess is his Dad. They look like they have it tough-enough. He has a nice warm smile and a nice manner and he takes whatever abuse is ladled out at him and never seems to bother with giving any back. 

He’s all right, really. He’s okay. 

Is this just me, this split personality behaviour I exhibit? Perhaps it is but I don’t think so. I think we all operate on a very basic level with people who we encounter right up close. I think we can subliminally see the pulse in their neck and hear the blood rushing around in their veins. We can feel their very life and their very humanity and, because of this, we can appreciate them better as the fellow human beings that they are and then deal with them accordingly.

Add a little distance – a very little distance – and those subtle signs that someone is a real person become diluted and quickly lost. Even at a remove of a mere fifty yards, a person can go from being a flesh and blood lad with troubles of his own to a racket-making nuisance and an utter blight on the landscape.

Then go back up close again and, almost immediately, the fellow-human starts to reappear. 

I don’t want to turn this into a sermon or anything. It just strikes me that this is possibly why Twitter and Facebook and such places can be so very cruel sometimes. That short distance at which any subliminal apprehension of another person’s humanity is possible is far-exceeded on there. Is it any wonder, then, that we sometimes attack each other as bits of typeface on a screen rather than the breathing troubled sacks of flesh and blood that we actually are?

All we can do is try to keep sight of it. If some series of words or images are driving you mad on your computer, try to remember that the person who put them there will most likely feel the sting of the whiplash you are planning to send their way.

I’d like to say I’ve got it sussed but I don’t. If tomorrow is sunny, the Accordion Man will be there again and I’ll be cursing him again.

But I’ll try not to.

All I can do is keep trying. 


Georgie said...

That's a nice story :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, the reality of another human being. Great stuff on a Sunday afternoon and an excellent way to avoid writing a book review about a long-dead Zen master. I have no experiences to equal yours. Or that even come close. I have no strong opinions on street musicians. Few do enough to encourage me to put my hand in my pocket but I’m not so mean spirited (or even plain mean) never to donate to their cause. If I stand and listen then I’ll pay; they’ve earned it. Never payed a piper in my life though. I don’t hate the bagpipe and its sound does stir a little nationalistic pride in me even when it appears at the oddest time (Spock’s funeral, for example) but when I see one on street I start thinking of the clichéd view the world has of us Scots and feel like they’re jumping on the bandwagon, cashing in.

Of course I’m judging them—we judge people all the time—and on the flimsiest of evidence and that’s what I hate about my relationships with ‘friends’ online: I really know nothing about most of them. Part of the problem is my bad memory. I have thought of keeping files on my friends but that just feels creepy and too much hard work to be honest. And so you, and so many others, exist as a figment of my imagination. I know you work, have a wife and a couple of kids (boys), can drive, frequently carry an umbrella even when it’s not raining, have an amusing (to me at least) Irish accent, do a lot of theatre-related stuff, lost your dad recently, are trying to get a novel published and a few other scraps of this and that but surely none of it amounts to the real Ken Armstrong. I think of you as a nice guy, a decent bloke. I think of you as a friend. You have been judged.

I had another friend once called Jane. We never fell out so I suppose we’re still friends. Not quite sure how that works. When I got the job as the IT trainer she was the secretary and we used to chat on the phone most days. I only met her a couple of times in the flesh but it was obvious that there was a connection there. Not a sexual one oddly enough despite the fact she was just my cup of tea. One day she said—or at least I assume she must have said based on my response which I do remember—that we should be friends (note the verb) and I said, and I remember this clearly: “What do friends do?” This confused her. Friendship to her was a state of being and not a state of doing. That wasn’t good enough for me and so we started to meet outside of working hours to do stuff. At first it felt a little artificial but we soon got into the swing of things. After a wee while my site was closed down and I moved to head office where we got to see each other all the time and that was better.

We tend to lump friends and family together but they’re not the same. My daughter doesn’t have to do anything to stay my daughter but then the love I feel for her is not the same as the affection I feel for Jane. Or you. Friendship does need a base and it’s only after a few years online that you realise that most of these bases were nowhere near as solid as you once imagined they were. I’ve lost quite a few friends over the six years I’ve been here. They’ve drifted off back to the real world. Friendships online are hard to maintain and they’re even harder to replace. There aren’t that many people out there I want to be friends with. Which I find the oddest thing because you would’ve thought us all being writers would immediately give us a leg up but then there’re writers and there’re writers. Common ground isn’t enough not if you’re going to stand in one corner leaving me in the opposite corner.

I do wonder how I come across online. My wife commented only a few days ago about how different I am on the page—and by extension online—to what I’m like in reality. My answer was simple: I’m a writer; it’s easier to be the real me when I write. Reality holds me back.

Anyway I’m running out of space and I’ve a book review to write.

John Corless said...

Ken -

I love music. Most types. Especially live music. Most types.

About ten or eleven years ago, I worked on a building in Shop Street, Galway for a while - maybe six weeks. Evenings going into nights. Demolition. I was the project manager. I stood outside as a sort of security guard and people-watched.

Most evenings, a piper - of sorts - positioned himself just outside the building and engaged in what I presume he thought was playing. He continuously hit one bum note. Everything would be fine in whatever tune he was playing until he came to a certain point. Then bang.

I wondered if the instrument was damaged? Was he trying to impose a key on the thing that simply wasn't there and was this the point where the pipes cried halt? Did he know the tune he was trying to play? Had he ever heard anyone play it correctly? Was he tone deaf? Was it a clever ploy to attract attention - provoke debate? Did he have a death wish?

For me it was a simple choice. A compressor driving a demolition hammer with it's resultant dust and dirt, or outside - fresh air and the piper.

In certain circumstances demolition noise can be attractive. Sadly.

John Corless.

William Gallagher said...

I've been stung on twitter and I expect I've been a bit stinging too. But having cleansed myself with that confession, I want to ask: can't you get headphones?

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank you Georgie :)

Hi Jim. A fascinating summary of my life (as seen from the other side of the Internet) in there. All quite accurate, actually, there isn't much else. ;) I don't understand what friends are anymore. And I just erased a whole three paragraphs about friends cos it sounded churlish when I read it back. :)

John: If the guy outside was a bagpiper, I would have shot him by now. :)

William: We've all been there, I guess. My work requires a fairly constant level of interaction, phoning etc, so headphones are not normally and option. Good idea, though. :)

Mauraaaaaaaaaa said...

I know your Accordion man too working as we do in neighbouring areas and I feel your pain but am not suggesting for a minute that mine would be on your level as I think if he were under my window I would DIEEEE as the junior world might say:)But as I am a lover of the accordion I do like it for the moment I might pass him en route to the 'shops'!! and as I hate passing him without dropping a coin into his basket I often find that I still feel bad on the return when I would find it bordering on silly to 'drop' again!! But like you too I have seen him with those who are more than likely his family and it makes me wonder how would I feel if that were what I had to look forward to to earn my 'bread'. But back to you and your pain...I would absolutely hate to have him under my window on anything like a regular basis:) Lovely piece though:)and you are a gem at the subtle,inner message.

hope said...

Any continual noise drives me nuts. I have sensitive hearing and all that repetition literally hurts my ears.

And yet...I too would find my "sympathy" gene coming to the front if I met your musician face to face. I have this somewhat irritating personality quirk which makes me look at both sides of an argument...and sometimes I lose the battle before it's begun for having looked at the other side.

Perhaps you could suggest your Musician "share" his talents, oh say a block down the road, a couple of days a week? Surely there are others who'd like to be entertained. ;)