#261: The Gold Coast Bagpipes

December 27th, 2013

He was thin, mostly, with light brown hair in a blocky cut that would be called hipster if he weren’t doing it authentically.

“Nope,” the doorman said, narrowing his eyes and looking away from me. “Haven’t had any complaints about a bagpipe.”

The condo doorman was about 45 and awkward, so awkward. His elbows jutted out like a marionette as he had wandered from the back room. His sports jacked emblazoned with the name of the condo building hung limply over weedy shoulders. He had a thin, happy smile that looked more like pulling his lips back to bare long, sickly-toned teeth.

But the smile was genuine, as was the awkwardness. I liked him a lot.

Art by Emily Torem

“Oh, I’m not complaining,” I said. “I was just walking by and I heard a bagpipe. I was trying to figure out where it was coming from.”

That’s true, that part. I had been walking down a ritzy side street off the Gold Coast shopping district when I heard soft music coming from above. It was a crisp November evening and the strains of a poorly played bagpipe cut through the chill and dark.

The sounds of “Amazing Grace,” “Scotland the Brave” and, in one weird interval, “The Hokey Pokey” (because that is, after all, what it’s all about) trickled down on the shoppers and dog walkers striding through the cold, clear darkness.

Echolocation and happening across a man in a valet jacket who yelled “He’s on the roof, man!” took me to a condo highrise where I could just make out a dark figure swaying on the top balcony.

“Sorry, I don’t know anything about a bagpipe,” the sports-jacket uniformed doorman of the building said, looking outside, up, down and otherwise away from me.

“Huh. It sounded like it was coming from here,” I said, suddenly very conscious that I might be outing a piper for breaking his condo tenants code.

“Weeeeeeeeeeeeell,” the man said. “I was outside hailing a cab and I thought I heard something. I looked around and thought, ‘Where’s that coming from?’”

“Yeah,” I said. “And it sounded like it was coming from here.”

“Was it good?” the man with his blocky haircut, Crispin Glover build and limp-hanging sportscoat suddenly asked.

I considered.

“I liked that he was playing. It was like, ‘Hey, free music.’ But he wasn’t very good. He kept hitting sour notes.”

“I don’t think it’s very good,” the doorman said, trailing off and looking down.

“That he’s playing, or …”

“What’s your first name?” he asked.

“Paul,” I said.

He gave me his first name, inhaled slightly, then reached out his hand. He looked me square in the eye as we shook.

“He lives on the 24th floor,” the doorman said.

“Ha!” I said.

The bagpiper, I would learn, wasn’t very good but would play a lot. He doesn’t have loud parties or scream and shout. He just spends some nights on the balcony playing the bagpipe to the Chicago air.

The doorman and his ridiculously Irish first and last name grew up loving the bagpipes but “never had the guts to try it.” But the love of the pipes means he covers for the man, playing dumb when he has to.

The neighboring businesses love it, the condo tenants hate it, but the piper manages to keep it just below the statutory decibel count for a noise complaint.

“A cop once came in and asked ‘How many units you got?’ I said 48 and he said, ‘We got a complaint about a goddamn piper, a bagpiper.’ And I played like I didn’t know anything, like I did with you.

“I asked if he was going to do anything. He said, ‘Do you think I’m going to go through 48 units?’ and he turned around and walked out. That was before we had the cameras though,” the doorman said, gesturing to a black, glassy spot on the otherwise eggshell wall.

As he spoke, the awkward, timid man got more animated, miming playing the pipes one moment and jumping back and forth to play both himself and the cop the next.

“I mean, I like it,” he concluded. “I love the bagpipe.”

“I love the bagpipe too,” I said.

He smiled a huge one.

“Go Irish!” he called, cocking his arm back for what would turn out to be an angular, violent high five.

“Go Irish!” I replied as our hands slapped.

“And go Bears!” he added, as this is Chicago.

I smiled warmly for what would turn into a conversation about the odds against Detroit.

“Go Bears,” I said softly as, I’m sure, the bagpipe strains of the Hokey Pokey played outside.

Comment on this story

Old Town School experts discuss banjos, ukuleles and the next big novelty instrument

Meet the artist

What's this?

You are currently reading #261: The Gold Coast Bagpipes by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.