Playing Nice

Another Sunday, another year. It’s New Year’s Day and I’m headed to my steady gig at a fancy hotel in Cologne. Royal Afternoon Tea, with solo piano music. As usual, I pull into the parking lot of the Honrath train station a few minutes before my scheduled train connection at two o’clock. I roll down my window. The day, unseasonably warm, sparkles with the promise of spring, even though winter has yet to arrive. The air smells toasty—a peculiar mix of burning branches and freshly baked bread.

I close my eyes and think about the refugees who have arrived in Germany in the last month—what it must be like for them to start a new year so far from home. Frightening, exciting, frustrating. Maybe feeling safe overrides any other sensation. I’ve never been a refugee, but I understand what it’s like to move to a foreign country. I had every possible economic advantage when I moved here, but it was still complicated, challenging, and at times, a little scary. The language, the culture, the change. I can’t imagine what our new neighbors—torn from their homes by war and fear—are experiencing.

From the warmth of my car, I check out the action on the platform. Look there—it’s Jamaican Guy! Jamaican Guy, with waist length dreads, stands next to the ticket machine, trying to make sense out of a complicated set of German instructions. Over the years I have seen Jamaican Guy several times in Wahlscheid, the quaint village where I live. Although Wahlscheid has become more colorful due to the recent influx of refugees—it’s still pretty much a white bread Sound of Music community. Whenever I spot Jamaican Guy strolling through our little town I feel an urge to say hello. Surely he’s a musician. Or maybe not—just because a Jamaican man has dreadlocks and looks like the coolest person this side of Paris, does not mean he once played sessions with Bob Marley. Maybe he’s not even Jamaican. I scold myself for making generalizations and keep my comments to myself. Still, I can’t help imagining the strains of “Edelweiß” arranged for reggae band and alphorn. Fusion at its finest.

Dreds

As I sit here watching, an elderly woman—wearing a pink coat and a baseball cap—hobbles over to Jamaican Guy and begins waving a ticket at him. I sense a potential language breakdown and hop out my car to see if I can help.

Old_Woman_2

“Please,” says the woman, who looks to be at least eighty. She speaks German in a booming voice, the way people do when they want to be understood, as if shouting might somehow make the person on the receiving end suddenly grasp the many nuances of a foreign language. “PLEASE, DO NOT SPEND YOUR MONEY ON A TICKET. SAVE YOUR MONEY FOR FOOD AND SHELTER. TODAY IS A HOLIDAY AND I AM PERMITTED TO TAKE A GUEST WITH ME. LET ME HELP YOU.”

I translate this into English for Jamaican Guy, leaving out the part about food and shelter. He looks at me, smiles, and says: “She thinks I’m a refugee, doesn’t she?”

“Uh, yes.” He’s obviously not a refugee, but in the eyes of this well-meaning woman, his dark skin and ripped jeans mean he has just gotten off a boat and walked halfway across Europe with his belongings in a plastic sack. Perhaps she hasn’t noticed his distressed leather man-purse, his Nikes, or his Rimowa suitcase.

She really wants to help him.

“Well fine with me! I can be a refugee if it makes her feel better.” He turns to the woman. “Happy New Year, Madam! Danke!”

Madam beams, her cheeks blushing as pink as her coat. “MY PLEASURE,” she says.

I have wondered about Jamaican Guy for years. His occasional presence in my neighborhood offers a welcome distraction from a neighborhood that seems, at times, way too predictable. Now’s my chance to talk to him. We introduce ourselves. His name is Andru; the German woman calls herself Frau Baumgartner. Together, we climb onto the train. Frau Baumgartner sits across the aisle from us and stares at the beautiful countryside as it sweeps past her window. “SO MANY SHADES OF GREEN,” she shouts in German. “STRANGE FOR THIS TIME OF YEAR.”

“Where do you live?” I ask Andru. “I’ve seen you in Wahlscheid and have always been curious about you. We don’t have many Jamaican-looking guys in town.”

“I have children in Wahlscheid—I come often to visit them. But my other homes are in Manhattan, Tokyo, and Kingston. I travel a lot for work. I’m headed back to Japan today. Every place is home for me—but no place is home, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. I really know what you mean. So, I have to ask—are you a musician?”

“Yes,” he says. “And a songwriter.”

“Me, too. How’s it going for you?”

Well. Turns out my new friend Andru is a pretty big star in the reggae world, with several gold and platinum records to his name. And he did work with the Wailers. I wasn’t far off with my first guess.

“I’m sorry Frau Baumgartner thought you were a refugee,” I say as he collects his belongings and prepares to get off the train—he’s connecting to another train to Frankfurt International Airport.

“She’s a sweet lady,” he says. “It’s the dark skin. Sometimes we all get lumped together. But, you know, she’s playing nice. It’s all good.” He doesn’t come right out and say don’t worry, be happy, but it would be a fitting sentiment at this particular moment.

We exchange cards, he says goodbye and danke to Frau Baumgartner, and disembarks.

AUFWIEDERSEHEN!” she says.

I immediately pull out my phone and do a Goggle search. Impressive. I find a YouTube video and slide over to Frau Baumgartner’s side of the aisle to show her.

“Look,” I say. “The man you helped today is a big star. He is flying to Japan today.” I show her a video of Andru performing in Moscow. She smiles, then her eyes widen.

“What a pity,” she says, speaking at normal volume.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“What a pity that he is now a refugee. No one is safe in this world.”

I think about this for a minute. “I suppose you’re right,” I say. “What brings you into Cologne on New Year’s Day? Are you meeting friends?”

“Oh no, dear. I am alone. But I like to get on the train and see what happens. I bring a bag lunch. I like getting out of the house and collecting adventures. Today has gotten off to a good start. A refugee who was once a star! Imagine! I hope that young man will be safe in Japan. I hope the Japanese are good to refugees.”

I don’t have the heart to set her straight. She has done her part, and I should do mine. We have been an unlikely trio—a blond American pianist, a Jamaican international reggae star, and a German senior citizen in a pink coat.

I get off the the train with Frau Baumgartner and we say cheerful goodbyes. She totters into the balmy winter afternoon, an old woman with a youthful willingness to help, a need to be needed, and a day of adventure—and shifting colors—ahead of her.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

  • Debbie Trolsen

    These things happen to me fairly often (though not with big reggae stars). I think it’s because I speak to people and that often leads to most interesting conversations.

  • My-Linh Kunst

    Love this heart-warming story. did this really happen? If so, how wonderful!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Yes! Really happened. As it was unfolding I was taking mental notes because it seemed so perfect for a story. The crazy thing is that it happened on Jan 1, the morning after the awful attacks in Cologne. How ironic is that? At that point no one was aware of what had happened. Life.

  • Andrea Offner

    Wonderful story, Robin – Thanks so much!!!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Andrea! Always good to hear that people are actually reading this stuff! xoxo

  • Melissa Volker

    This is the loveliest tale ever. I’m jealous. 🙂

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Mel! Public transportation provides a multitude of story opportunities.

  • Andru is a true citizen of the world. Glad to hear he wasn’t offended and understood the beauty of a person trying to “play nice.” xo

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      If only more people would “play nice,” right? I think from now on I will make an effort to highlight those who do! xoxo

  • Carol Windfuhr

    Great story as usual. Love reading… Looking forward to more.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Carol! Happy 2016—sending love from this side of the Rhine.

  • Connie Wood Spencer

    What a wonderful story, Robin. Your writing takes me with you – I was on that train admiring the lady for her wonderful spirit and being in awe of the Jamaican star. Travel well, and safely.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks so much, Connie! Always great to hear from you, my spirired classmate!