I don’t sleep much. Never have. Call it insomnia, call it madness, call it years of amphetamine abuse. End result: I sleep very little. Which is why I walk at night. More in the winter than the summer to be honest. This is mostly because I like to be left alone to think and talk to myself while I walk, and – no matter how clear a night is in the winter – most people won’t bother braving the cold to enjoy it.
I was in my second year at Ohio State (my fifth year of college at my third university) and I was out enjoying an exceptionally fine morning during Winter Break. It was a little after three in the morning, which meant that even the die-hard drinkers (strangely, I was not one of them that evening) had already moved indoors. I was making my way down Neil Avenue just before Victorian Village becomes the OSU Campus. As I was crossing 10th Avenue – the actual street that marks the beginning of the campus proper – a noise began. I still have no real way to describe it, even after learning what was causing it. It was something like the sounds you hear when the wind blows through those weird rock outcroppings in the badlands out West. This primal sort of empty, longing call. It still remains one of the most haunting and strangely beautiful sounds I have ever encountered. Deeply intrigued, I cut across Neil and continued down 10th heading in the direction I suspected the sound to be coming from.
Half a block down 10th from Neil there is a bus stop for the campus shuttle. Directly across the street from this shelter is the entrance to a parking garage that services the local hospital – itself another hundred yards down from the bus stop. As I came abreast of the bus stop the noise amplified suddenly. Turning, I ended up looking directly into the toll gated entrance of the parking garage.
And there was my source.
A man, dressed in green hospital scrubs, a yellow and black scarf, and white tennis shoes was standing in the middle of the empty first floor of the parking garage playing a slide trombone. Not just playing, mind you, he was also doing this shuffling, hopping dance as he played and swinging the slide of the trombone up and down and back and forth. He was completely and totally absorbed with the sound he was producing.
Not music. Sound. There was no real rythym. No discernable melody. There was just him playing; producing this hypnotic brilliant rise and fall of sound that echoed and bounced in the cavernous concrete structure of the parking garage to produce something that reverberated in my brain with all these images of ancient tribal rites and vast empty spaces. Completely mesmerized, and thinking to myself somewhere amidst the overwhelming awe how much I love the strangeness of college campuses, I sat down on the bus stop bench and just stared at this man, this exceptional bizarre man, producing something I don’t think I will ever successfully describe.
And this is where the story gets weird.
After about twenty minutes of watching this man play his trombone, I noticed the dog. It was sitting just outside the lowered stripey barrier of the parking garage and watching the musician as intently as I was. A moment later, I noticed another. And another. And another. All of these dogs, somewhere between six and ten, not entering the parking garage, not making a sound, just sitting around its entrance staring at the man playing the trombone. And then I noticed the cats. And then I noticed the racoons. There were probably twenty animals total (not counting myself) all watching this man play his trombone. The dogs were lined up outside the garage entrance; the cats were sitting on the low wall that runs between the support columns around the garage’s base – not as still as the dogs, though still pretty complacent for cats – and never looking away from the trombonist for long; and lastly about four racoons from who-knows-where sitting on their haunches, little paws held up before them, in a semi-circle on the grassy median between the parking garage sidewalk and 10th Ave.
All of us just sat there and listened to this man play his wandering, lilting unmusic.
Eventually, he stopped. Not a trailing off, or a long final note, or anything remotely noticeable happened to indicate he was coming to a conclusion. He just stopped in mid sound. And then he bowed. Not to me. I’m almost positive there was no way he could see me where I was sitting from his vantage. I’m not even sure if he was aware of his non-human audience. He just bowed, straightened, bowed once more, then tucked his trombone under his arm and walked deeper into the parking garage. The gathered animals just wandered away. Dogs sniffed at each other then ambled off, cats disappeared, the racoons ran into the bushes around the dentistry building. And I just sat there. Not quite sure what had happened.
Ten minutes later, the trombone player emerged from the garage. No car, but he had gotten a long dark overcoat, a scarlet and grey OSU beanie, and a tan briefcase from somewhere. The trombone was carried casually over his shoulder like a baseball bat. He crossed the street and sat down next to me at the bus stop. He took a quick glance at me, and even though I was openly staring at him, he turned away without saying anything. A few minutes later the bus could be seen coming down the road. When it was at the corner I had started from, he suddenly turned to me and asked, “Doesn’t that hurt?”
I should mention that when this story took place I had my labret pierced with a ring and a stud in the left side of my nose. A little taken aback, but used to the question I answered automatically, “No. It’s just like getting a shot. No worse.”
The bus pulled up, the man stood up with his trombone and his briefcase, and turned towards me one last time. “People sure do strange things.” he told me with absolutely no trace of irony that I could detect.
I saw him once more, about three months later walking across the Oval in the middle of the day. He was still carrying his trombone over his shoulder like it was some kind of sporting equipment.