by Melissa Wiley
An accordion can all too easily take your breath away, and that, of course, is the danger. I was riding the New York subway the other weekend, where air is notoriously scarce, when a dark, stout man, balding though still young, sidled up beside me as I stood mid-car gripping a steel pole at its abdomen and began playing his accordion. At the moment, I was nursing one of those mild a-causal bout of melancholy that come on about a week before my menstrual period, and his music instantly altered my breathing, my own breath deepening with the accordion’s exaggerated and noisy inhalations of unaccountably fresh, ample sound waves. I couldn’t help staring, down as it happened, because he was about 3 inches shorter than me, at a large, glistening pimple insolently perched atop his left eyebrow. Soon a seat became available, and I sat down, at once perfectly gemütlich in this impromptu underground bier garden, directing my gaze upward now instead of down at the gentleman, though still a little distracted by the purulent mass raising and lowering with his eyebrows in time to the music as he ambled gaily down the car, followed closely by what I reasonably assumed were his wife and son at work collecting money in a brown newspaper cap.
The woman wore a tan sweater with a tight weave and bell sleeves and a long, flowing print skirt. She would have looked completely put together and somewhat lovely even, with her soft olive skin and light green eyes, had she not so conspicuously been not wearing a bra. The abrupt plunge of her small breasts as her nipples pointed askew like confused metal detectors within the taut tan sweater robbed it of its dignity, I couldn’t help but think a cheap cross-your-heart for her and some salicylic acid for him would have made all the difference—that and the absence of the shadow of worry on their faces, though I can’t imagine having been all open smiles myself were my own unfettered jubblies swaying quite so freely in the tunnel breeze, positioned at eye level with the seated passengers I was soliciting. But these thoughts were quickly silenced as a policeman curtly summoned them off the train at the next stop and escorted them out of the station to the muted jeers of the passengers, the ghost of the reverberating music still lingering like fraying spider silk among the metallic screeching of the train’s aging breaks.
Playing the accordion, I have always felt, is not something you can do on the sly, especially not on a crowded subway. It is, above all, an expansive, smiling instrument, a way of widening your chest and your lungs vicariously through its plodding rhythmic compressions. And whether you like its particular timbre doesn’t matter much; when it’s there, you know it, and you expand along with it to some degree. The fact that the most likely place you’ll happen upon one is at a German bier fest, two, three, or four sheets to the wind, only increases the odds of falling under its monochromatic spell. As I said, there’s no hiding from this one, and perhaps the man with the greasily climaxing mass of pus on his lower forehead should have known as much.
I had, as it happens, all too frequent encounters with a Burmese accordion during my most impressionable years. Our grammar school priest, a man we called Father John, a refugee of Myanmar, then Burma, would enter our classrooms at will, interrupting our tests in long division and American history to play songs like “Bless Me Jesus” and “This Little Light of Mine,” to which we could never sing loudly enough for his partially deafened tastes. While I was fighting against the clock for elusive traces of memory about Nathan Hale and Aaron Burr, Father John’s accordion would announce itself a mere two classrooms down, and our teacher, eyes yellowing, would whisper-scream to the class, “You are not retaking this test! If you haven’t finished it by the time Father John gets here, automatic fail.” Frantically extracting straws of surface knowledge from my hippocampus, the tempo of the encroaching song’s refrain accelerating with growing amplitude and the neighboring children’s voices metamorphosing into punctuated demonic shouts, the squeezebox-driven pressure was enough to make you throw down your number-two pencil, run screaming into the cafeteria, and drown yourself in Kool-Aid as the only legal precursor to your inevitable incipient career as a perpetually glassy-eyed patron at the local bier garden, where accordions knew their natural place. Just as Father John’s light, buoyant step crossed the classroom threshold, however, you’d scratch off the last answer, place your pencil inside its premolded slot at the top of your desk, and exhale, your face now a glowing infernal red from holding your breath to stave off the insidious influx of the chivying, caterpillar-like instrument. The accordion had nearly cost you a passing grade in history, not to mention a life of peaceable sobriety. But life, you were told by those who had lived more of it, was short, and you were prepared to be the bigger person, which even at nine years old I was easily on my way to being, Father John being the wee-est of wee Burmese men.
And in a moment, the accordion pressing its august air against the yellow cinderblocks and inflating the classroom a good 10 square feet beyond its previous test-taking proportions, you were at ease, if slightly deafened with the fresh force of the instrument’s arresting propinquity. Like all good sensory overload, however, it had the salutary effect of erasing your more distressing and entangled thoughts, thoughts of violence toward the most amiable of men, a servant of the Christian god and a refugee no less, from a place with much more textured, ethnically layered cuisine, and here he was stuck on a diet of dry cereal and corndogs in small-town Indiana. In any case, you were not supposed to mess with him, and you were glad that your hippocampus kicked in before you were driven to any irrevocable damage.
How they ever received an education in Burma, of course I didn’t know, what with their evident casual attitude toward the sanctity of the American Revolution, but I felt magnanimous in casting aside my previous frustration and shouting out “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” with the preternatural vocal strength of a 10-year-old Mahalia Jackson. And it was the only appropriate response, even if I hadn’t finished the test and consequently initiated my decline into the life skills curriculum. Assailed by as big an oaf of an instrument as you’re ever likely to come across, I realized, you don’t send it and its player packing off the train—you let it dilate into its natural stentorian splendor and uplift the otherwise drab subterranean train ride. You don’t wear a bra and you let it shine.
But the authorities eventually caught up with Father John as well. In addition to the accordion, his other, dueling passion was King’s Island, a theme park in Ohio a tantalizing two hours away by freeway in his speeding orange-striped station wagon. He would invite up to six lucky children at a time to escape with him there every weekend with clement conditions, when he would forego the more immediate physical thrill of the water slides and roller coasters and even the gentler pleasures of the carousel for the shadier carnival games. For a singularly diminutive man, Father John had quite the arm and tossed brightly painted ping pong balls into goldfish jars as well as heavier dusty orbs into convulsively shifting hoops for six, seven, eight hours on end, crushing his enormous plunder of stiff-limbed stuffed animals into a storage container on top of his vehicle. His personal residence, the parish rectory, was an opulent three-story house with stippled flesh-colored paint. Anyone without a mania for acquiring life-size Styrofoam-filled panda bears and plush Smurfs with pert pug noses would have easily left at least five rooms hollow and uninhabited. But Father John had adorned them all with the cynosure, the fuzzy, cheap sunlight of every materialistic child’s eye. Piled to the ceiling in lampless room after room, labyrinthine catacombs of frozen plastic-eyed playfulness that would not decay for centuries, his seraglio of faux fur flesh formed an ever-smiling audience for his accordion practice. I took home dozens of toys at his insistence. One, a peach bear in a navy blue cheer leader costume with a matching bow, I only gave away to the Salvation Army this year, at the age of 33.
When I was in my early-twenties and living in Chicago, my mother told me over the phone one Sunday afternoon that Father John had been accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars in funds from the parish. Nothing incriminating I believe was ever proved, but it also came to light that, presumably in the months when King’s Island closed its gates, he plied his dexterous right arm to the craps table at the local casino, temporarily leaving his accordion and his coterie of stuffed animals behind. His superiors swiftly relocated him to another parish, ostensibly without either a children’s theme park or another nearby means of testing his limits with Lady Luck. But may God give them adult acne for ever evermore if they took away his accordion.
So in my experience at least, playing the accordion and pressing your luck go very much hand in hand. There is a trenchant vulnerability, a mordant plea for gaiety in one who straps a squeeze box onto his chest and commences playing such an instrument, sending out obstreperous cornpone melodies into the ether in a New York subway or from a provincial church altar minutes before transubstantiating a host of bread into the body of Christ. There can be no false starts here with the accordion, however many there may be elsewhere, in the background of life. Whatever drove that man in the subway and his son and braless wife to seek money among strangers for a rousing few bars of “Roll out the Barrel” or whatever similar tune he played, he was not lying low with his volcanic pimple, gripping a steel pole at its abdomen, breathing shallowly in the cloistered, damp air, and keeping his eyes on the gum cemented into the floor grooves. He was making melodic, moronic waves that made me smile. For the few moments he was there, there was more air in the overcrowded train car as a result. And that's perhaps worth betting on.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance food and culture writer living in Chicago. When not minding her Ps and Qs, she seizes every opportunity to remove her shoes and walk barefoot with half-painted toenails through airport security in pursuit of global opportunities to dance, draw, laugh, and gape. She also volunteers as a literacy tutor and endangers children’s lives when flying her kite at full mast along the beach.