An accordion for Dillard

Sun 24 April 2011 by Ajay Shekhawat

I ran into Dillard not long after I moved into my current apartment, near the intersection of 14th and Sanchez streets in San Francisco. It had taken me 8 months to find an apartment that I really liked, and I loved the neighborhood too. It's one of those quintessential San Francisco "micro" neighborhoods. Everything is close by: an organic produce store, a hardware store, restaurants, movie theaters (Castro, Roxie), public transportation is within 1 block; you get the idea.

Sometimes, while running errands, I'd walk by this scrawny homeless guy lounging in the sun (if it was sunny), on the steps of one of the houses. After a while, I started to recognize him. He never asked me for anything, but we would exchange a smile or a nod; a pleasantry or two.

One day he struck up a conversation, and I learnt that his name was Dillard. It turned out one of my co-workers (Stefan, who also lives in the neighborhood) knew him quite well; so I warmed up to him quickly.

His was the typical homelessness story, which we're all familiar with by now: a combination drugs, alcoholism, abuse, etc. resulting in a downward spiral with no bottom.

The first request he made of me was for clothes. His were in bad shape, and God knows I have enough t-shirts lying around; so it was a no-brainer. I gave him a couple of t-shirts and a pair of jeans.

Stefan told me about a YouTube video of Dillard playing the accordion; it's embedded below.

I asked him about his career as a street musician, and it was another sad chapter in a  sad saga. He had learnt to play the accordion on the streets. Somehow he managed to get one of his own. But as he was living on the streets, it got wet in the rain and damaged. Such is the vicious cycle of homelessness. But he said he was optimistic about finding an SRO (a subsidized "hotel room" you can rent in SF), if one became available. If he got one, he said, he would be able to turn his life around.

At that time, I made a promise to him, on the spur of the moment: if he got a place to live, I would get him an accordion.

Months went by. I would run into him, and buy him fruits (and soy milk; he loves soy milk). At least I was helping him eat healthy once in a while.

Then, about 2 weeks ago, I ran into him again. He seemed to have showered and shaved, and was looking positively upbeat. "Ajay", he says; "I found a place to live!". It turns out he had finally landed a room at an SRO. "Maryland Hotel" is the place, he said; it's near Union Square. Room #32. It's owned by an Indian person.

And he remembered my promise.

Having been brought up in a culture where your word is your bond, I told him that I would keep my promise. Thus began my search for an accordion.

Here I must tell you that I have no musical training at all. I used to think that an accordion was basically a vertical piano. And I didn't think anyone played them anymore.

First, I figured I'd ask around at the "San Francisco Freecycle Network", where people give away unused stuff for free. No luck. But I did get a response from a lady who was touched by the story.

In the meantime, Dillard (who had taken my number), left me 3 voicemail messages, describing the accordion he wanted. "A full chromatic 120 bass keys". This was all ancient Greek to me (that thing has 120 buttons?!? wow!). He mentioned a store named "Accordion Apocalypse" where he knew the owner, and asked me to contact them.

Next, I reached out to my fellow employees at Yahoo. We have an internal mailing list for random topics (aptly named, "devel-random"). People discuss everything under the sun there; I thought I might find a musician who could help out. There were no leads on a "full chromatic 120 key accordion", but people were touched by the story; and I got a bunch of offers of support, to defray the expenses. I'm lucky to have such great co-workers.

Friday (04/22) I stopped by Accordion Apocalypse during lunch, and met Skyler, one of the owners. It's an amazing little store. Skyler remembered Dillard, and knew what had happened to his previous instrument. She also knew what he was talking about, and identified 2 accordions for sale that would suit his needs.

But I had no way to get in touch with Dillard. All I knew was, he was living in "Maryland Hotel", room 32. A quick web search revealed that there is no SRO named "Maryland Hotel" in San Francisco.... oops. But there was an SRO named "Marilyn Inn", in roughly the Union Square area; maybe that's what he had said? I tried calling them up, but got some person who didn't understand a word I was saying.

The next day, Saturday (04/23) I decided to walk over to Union Square and see if I could find him. My friend Pamela joined me in the crusade. We walked over to Powell and Market, and from there slowly made our way up. I showed her the YouTube video so she could also recognize him. I was hoping I'd find him sitting in the sun somewhere, or pan-handling.

We braved the throngs of tourists, looking for any sign of Dillard. We criss-crossed Union Square, but no luck. Finally, we decided to head over to Marilyn Inn and see if we could talk to someone. Dillard had said that it was an Indian person who owned the SRO, so I figured I may have better luck going there in person.

Marilyn Inn is on a little alley between 2 busy streets, Bush and Pine. As we turned from Bush and started walking up the alley, who appears but Dillard? His eyesight isn't that great, so he couldn't recognize me from a distance but recognized the voice.

When I told him that I had scoped out 2 accordions for him at Accordion Apocalypse, he was overjoyed. He hadn't eaten anything all morning, but still wanted to go there right away. He fished out my number from his pocket, and said that he was planning on calling me that day. I gave him some money for food and bus fare. He headed off to get some food, and Pamela and I walked back to Market Street, to the food court in Westfield Mall. The plan was, he would checkout the accordions over the next few days, and let me know; then I'd pick it up for him.

We had barely been seated with our lunch that I got a call from Skyler. Dillard had run over to the store and had already picked out an accordion! I was very impressed with his eagerness; that made me even more confident that the effort wouldn't be wasted. I told Skyler that I'd be by later to pick it up.

We walked back to my apartment and I took my car and drove over to the store. Dillard had picked the $695 accordion (the other one was $895). It was a black "Ancona" model, made in Italy. It included a case; and Skyler had thrown in some plastic covers in case he needed it. The total came to $761. I scanned the receipt:

30 minutes after I picked up the accordion, I got another call: from Dillard himself. Yes, I told him, I had the accordion. I could hear the excitement in his voice. We agreed to meet up outside his hotel at noon today (Sunday, 04/24).

Today, I woke up a little late, but around 11:40 I stepped out of my apartment (a carriage house in the backyard of a bigger unit). The neighbors behind my apartment have some sort of a band, and were practicing. You know what I heard? An accordion playing (and drums). I have never heard them play an accordion. I took that to be a sign from above, that I was doing the right thing (though I'm not a religious man at all).

At 11:58, I pulled up outside the hotel, and waited. At noon, I decided I'd go in and ask. I rang the bell, and the Indian lady buzzed me in. Before I could say anything, Dillard came around the corner. He was super excited to see me. I put in a few good words for him (in Hindi) with the lady. He called her his "mom" (to which she replied, "I already have 3 sons; I don't need any more!"). She heard that he needed a dolly to carry his new accordion, and found one for him (for free).

Then came the big moment. We stepped outside, and I popped open the trunk. He saw that I was going to take a video, and helpfully suggested I place myself "over there" so that I'd get a better shot. Then he went through the theatrics of "finding" the accordion, and played a little bit. He's such a performer! The video is below.

Then he headed over to Sutter and Stockton, his favorite hangout, where he claims he'll be playing all day. If you're in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by and say "hi" (and leave him a tip).

Some people have been skeptical of this whole thing. "He'll probably hock that thing for drugs anyways". Yes, that could happen. But you know what? Once in a while one has to take a chance on humanity. I'm single, with no responsibilities (to my mom's chagrin, but we'll ignore that for now). I make a decent living, and $761 won't bankrupt me (plus, my wonderful colleagues have offered to chip in, so the damage will be less than that). But think about it: if Dillard can resume his career, he can make a decent living and regain control of his life. His eagerness to get in touch with me; the speed with which he went over to the store; etc. all tell me that he is really serious, and he really wanted the accordion.

With all that's going on around us, it makes me feel good about myself that I not only kept my word, but that I also helped make someone's dream come true. That's worth way more than dollar amount!