Editor's note: This story has waited so long to be reported it has become Yellow Springs' very own elephant in the living room.
Almost very day for the past six months, a man has been driving to Yellow Springs from Springfield, sitting on a bench in the middle of downtown and beating on a large drum for five or six hours. Next to him on the bench is panhandler's jar filled with singles. With his persistence and seeming determination to remain drumming in front of Tom's Market in spite of mounting objections, one would think that this man has been deeply committed to playing the djembe, a deep carved African drum, for a long time. Not so. He has been drumming for only about a year, he said in a recent interview.
According to King Kenneth, the name he used to identify himself to this reporter, he has been beating his big bongo in front of Tom's for about six months. For six months prior to that, he practiced every day up in Springfield, where he lives; not in his apartment, but on a vacant lot he owns on the corner of Wittenberg Avenue and Grand Avenue. He started by banging on a white plastic garbage pail. Then he turned to practicing on the Senegalese drum he got a good deal on in a store in Dayton. He played until his hands swelled and split. After that on any day when the temperature was over 40 degrees, he said, he would drive down to Yellow Springs, a place he has been visiting for some 50 years, and plunk down in front of Tom's, usually between one and six p.m.
When asked how he learned to play, he said, "Yahweh taught me."
His speech was sprinkled liberally with Biblical references as he claimed that reaction to his playing has been mixed, but mostly favorable. The police have been called a number of times, mostly by merchants directly across Xenia Avenue, he admitted.
"The police can't do anything," he said, "because people have been drumming and making music here for a long time."
He tries to cooperate and recently has cut down on the volume and frequency with which he bangs his drum, he said.
"The lady across the street in the beauty parlor, Lori, if she comes out and gives me the thumbs down, I will stop for awhile," he said. "It was the barber shop that called the cops. One day I tried ringing a little bell. I'm just making a joyful noise to the Elohim of Israel."
He greeted passersby amiably all the while we talked.
"I believe in peace, unity and harmony," King Kenneth said. "Some people, drumming makes them happy. You can't play with anger in your heart."
Asked what he did before his current gig, he said he was "a soldier in the army of Yahweh since I was 25."
"I have always been a self-employed entrepreneur," he said. "Nobody will hire me. If they hire me, it's to set me up."
One of the things he does is sell bottled water from his lot in Springfield, where, he said, he also has two horseshoe pits and supervises the games. Some folks would rather that he continue doing that instead of drumming in Yellow Springs.
Pam Hogarty, owner of Unfinished Creations said, "It is absurd that one man can disrupt the entire downtown."
Hogarty has called the police several times and has been told that there is nothing they can do about it, as there is no ordinance to cover it.
"He's driving us crazy," she said. "I can't even open my door anymore. I can't hear my customers. Now he's showing up at noon. He used to start at 1:00 pm. I called the police again today."
According to Hogarty, the merchants are getting together to try to do something about it, possibly go to the Village Council or the Chamber of commerce.
The manager of one village business, who requested to remain anonymous, said she heard reports that the drummer is verbally abusive to young women on street. This does not surprise her.
"He has been banned from our store for harassing the young women who work here," she said. "The tourists think he is very cool. I think he is very annoying. He is not a good drummer. I like to open my door in good weather. I can't stand it. It's awful."
Several employees of nearby businesses refused to comment for this article out of fear of reprisals.
"He's always looking to start a fight," the anonymous manager said.
One man, who for years has been sitting on one of the benches in front of Tom's talking to passersby, said he cannot carry on a conversation anymore. He tries to show up when he knows Kenneth is not going to be there, he said. He also asked to remain anonymous. According to him, Kenneth claimed to have been a boxer when he was younger.
"He threatened one of the ladies here, saying she didn't know what he was capable of," the bench-sitter said.
According to the man, Tom Gray came out of the market one day and asked Kenneth to leave due to customer complaints. Gray could not be reached for comment for this article.
"Many days, especially Saturdays, Kenneth is on the bench by 11 a.m.," the man said. "He adds to the list of town characters, but the other characters' patience is being worn down. They can't hear each other, so they flee."
Priscilla Moore, owner of Mr. Fub's Tea Party, which is right next to Tom's, said she has had to field customer complaints about the noise. Personally, it hasn't bothered her too much, she said. But the weather has been cool and her door has been closed. She wonders if she will be able to keep the door open when it warms up.
"It's sort of annoying, the constant, monotonous rhythm," she said. "It's not an appropriate place to be. He is wearing out his welcome."
Lori Deal, owner of The Shop, disputes Kenneth's account that a simple thumbs down from the porch of her beauty parlor across the street quiets his drum.
"He made that offer," she said. "I tried it once and he turned it up."
According to Deal, the tourists, who don't have to listen to the drumming every day, like it, but the locals don't.
"It is an inconvenience and an annoyance to me businesswise," she said. "I like to create a certain ambience for my customers with soft jazz. I am not happy he's there."