Saturday night, I was walking in the city center of Copenhagen on a pedestrian-only street called Stroget. It’s actually the longest pedestrian-only street in Europe, with hundreds of stores spanning over more than a kilometer. At night, the area is famous for its street music. We heard a beautiful quartet playing Christmas carols, a man playing the violin, and later that night a small band playing its own music and selling CDs.
Jokingly, my friends and I commented that we wished we had brought our recorders– from our 3rd grade “music” lessons– so we could join in and make some quick cash.
About fifteen minutes later, we passed a man standing in a t shirt and mittens actually playing a recorder. Immediately we fell silent. What seemed like a funny joke was in fact someone else’s reality.
Heartbroken, I realized Man With The Recorder probably spent his pocket change on a recorder instead of a coat, hoping if he just made a few sounds out of the instrument that people would give him much more money than if he were to beg. But it was 15 degrees outside, with 20 mile per hour winds, and he wasn’t getting any money. He moved his fingers up and down the instrument, but his mittens made it so that his fingers covered more than one hole at a time, so the music–if anyone could even call it that–was squeaky and without rhythm. He bounced back and forth, tapped his fingers furiously, and clutched his elbows to his side to feel any remaining body heat. His cracked lips had turned dark blue.
With my shopping bag, coffee, and puffy jacket, I walked by Man With The Recorder. And I didn’t stop. I, with an almost college degree, a warm home and opportunities to travel, a set of “pointless” recorder skills thanks to a quality education, with a future that includes so many possibilities, walked by a man who would do absolutely anything– like stand in 15 degree weather and play an instrument he did not know how to play– for any one of my possibilities.
Sitting on my flight back to Geneva, I open my wallet. In the change pouch, I notice I have 50 krones, about $10, left from the money I withdrew from the ATM when I first arrived in Copenhagen. I have nothing I can do with those krones now that I return to Swiss francs. Ashamed, I wish I had given those few krones to Man With The Recorder. Those 50 krones could have bought him some gloves instead of mittens, a how-to-play-recorder book, maybe even a coat.
I am struck by the two totally different worlds in which Man With The Recorder and I live. He was cold and was just trying to offer music in exchange for warmth. And here I am sitting on my heated plane going back to Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I am headed back to the headquarters of the NGO where I am working, where every day we are helping hundreds–probably thousands– of people every day. To do such work, the employees must be brilliant. With a deep understanding from commitment and quality education, they bring huge skills required to tackle complex poverty issues worldwide.
Yet at the same time, Man With The Recorder needed our help. And it doesn’t take a college education or fancy skills for me to stop, think, and act on how I could help him.
Helping Man With The Recorder is as important as helping the hundreds of others.
But I kept walking. I cried later that night. But I still kept walking.
Maybe I kept walking because I was caught off guard so much that I couldn’t process his situation quickly enough. Maybe I kept walking because I was in a big group and I didn’t want to get separated. But, regardless, I kept walking. And I’m sure he kept playing well into the night, every night, while thousands more people will walk by and pretend not to notice the desperate pleas screeching right in front of them.
This piece is for you, Man With The Recorder. Maybe I’ll find my way back to Copenhagen and I’ll buy you those mittens and that how-to book. But if I don’t, I want you to know that you have touched my life. I know you wanted to make music to touch people’s lives so that in exchange they would give you money. Well, you touched my life and I didn’t pay you. So consider this post an I Owe You.
But this piece is also for all of my readers. This holiday season, as we buy unnecessary gifts for all of our loved ones and enjoy the warmth of our homes and our puffy jackets, I hope we stop and look around. And when our eyes land on desperation, I hope we don’t keep walking.
Yes, this piece is for you, Man With The Recorder, but it’s also for me, and for you: We must consider such a bubble we live in that we would be caught off guard, surprised, uncomfortable by Man With The Recorder. It’s a frightening bubble that ignores the fact that Man With The Recorder is the reality of millions and millions. And we, collectively, are the other millions and millions who far too often just keep walking. I am hopeful for a world where no longer the realities of others surprise us, but instead stir so much sensitivity and empathy that we stop dead in our tracks and offer support. I am hopeful for a world where during the holiday season we won’t stock up on knick knacks from a long street of famous stores but will instead offer coats and gloves to the millions in need. Because, ultimately, I am hopeful for a world where people like you, Man With The Recorder, do not have to resort to desperate measures to find warmth.