Lives That Could Have Been

Spend any time in downtown Denver during the summer, and you are sure to notice two important attributes of the city. The first is the large number of street kids. The second is the pianos.

The pianos were clearly some bureaucrat's idea of a downtown beautification project. They are old, upright pianos, brightly colored, positioned just far enough away from each other than the sound coming from one is inaudible to the person playing the next. There are signs urging the public to sit down and play.

In the early evening, during happy hour, there are exactly the kinds of people you might expect: Old, bearded has-beens who play "Piano Man," young hipsters trying to impress their dates with an introductory level knowledge of some recognizable Mozart themes, random people sheepishly poking at the keys to test whether or not the pianos are part of some marketing campaign, surprised that the pianos do, in fact work.

Later on, though, the street kids come out of their all-day drug binges, with their bellies full, thanks to the spoils of a full day's begging. They crowd around the pianos in groups of four or five, and one of them sits down to entertain the rest. And, I'm telling you, these kids are quite good.

I don't mean that they are "good, for being street kids." I mean they are legitimately good. One is an excellent R&B vocalist who sings what seems to be original compositions; love songs, mostly, the stuff of youth and R&B. Another plays what sounds like pop songs, but there is something uniquely "off" about the harmonic content - it doesn't sound bad, it sounds innovative. He taps his foot, and I can't help but notice his badly worn shoes. A great many of them play songs I've never heard before, greatly embellished with impressive improvisations.

All that is to say, they are great musicians. Any of them could draw a crowd, given a paid venue in which to play.

But they are street kids. Their lives consist mostly of begging and doing drugs. They form friendships and they treat each other well. They are nice enough. But they are street kids, without homes, without educations, without jobs, without any ambition. Their lives revolve around dealing, buying, eating at McDonald's, and... playing impressive music on free pianos.

Then the logician in me kicks in. It wonders how the same person who can be moved to learn how to play the piano, and play it well, can fully lack dedication in every other aspect of his or her life. Learning to play the piano well takes literal years of dedication, and normally that kind of dedication is associated with more positive life outcomes than homelessness and drug addiction.

Who are these kids? How did they get here? Where will they end up when they get older? How many of life's paths were altered by their decisions to surrender to life on the street? What will happen to these lives that could have been?

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