Saturday, April 18, 2009

Art or Annoyance? Fear and Loathing in Yellow Springs

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."


Anonymous said...

I like this article because it exposes how issues involving civil rights can be very very complicated.

Example: An individual drummer's right to "free speech" v the right of the general public and local businesses to be protected against "nuisances".

Is a solution to this comflict being pursued ?

Surely a compromise can be reached. What is the Chamber doing? What are the police doing? What is Council doing?

Virgil Hervey said...

I have invited YSPD Chief John Grote to comment on this blog post.

Anonymous said...

How is this guy's behavior different than somebody playing their care radio too loud? The police issue tickets about that don't they?

If people are willing to make public complaints, the police should be able to act. If citizens have been threatened, action to enforce public safety and social agreements seems appropriate. If our community can't make a public bully stop abusing others, there's something really rotten going on.

You know as well as I do that if John Grote tickets or arrests this guy some local will use the opportunity to poke at John. Council really should be dealing with this, shouldn't they? Why not ask them for a response, too?

Virgil Hervey said...

A few notes:

I know for a fact that at least some Village council members read this blog. But as far as I know, no one has appealed to them for any kind of action.

I heard from one of the Tom's Market bench-sitters that, yesterday, a resident of an apartment above one of the stores on Xenia Avenue got in the drummer's face with a guitar, strumming loudly and shouting something like, "I can play loud, too."

Anonymous said...

It echoes off the buildings across the street and is louder in the buildings across from him. In one business, it can be heard in the back room. It cuts through thought, conversation, competes with music on the radio. I'm all for drumming, but I'm also for ambiance at work. Shoppers like to be absorbed into their experience or remember what they are shopping for - and I need quiet to do my office work. I wonder if a change of location would help? Not sure we have an enforceable noise ordinance or if pan handling violates the law. One business was told they had to complain to Tom's since its his bench and someone in Tom's would get him to quiet down. He's always been polite to me and I wish there were a better place for what he does.

LS said...

Frankly, I don't see how his drumming is different from any of the other musicians who play downtown for hours at a time.

He has always been polite to me (a young woman). If there are issues of inappropriate behavior or threats, that's something else. But unless the council wants to outlaw all musical instruments downtown (which would be absurd) then I don't think there is anything to do about the drumming.

Anonymous said...

This article has nothing to do with 'civil rights' or 'freedom of speech'.

Right now it legally falls into the category of:

1) nuisance
2) illegal pan-handling
3) parking violations - usually parking his Burgundy station wagon in the short term parking slot for hours upon hours on Short Street.

Tom's Market asking him to stop is admirable and I'm extremely grateful for him doing that.

I've seen this man mad, I would never have the courage to confront him or to call Chief Grote about him.

As for trying to categorize it as 'music' it is not, no offense intended.

I enjoy the variety of musical artists that come to town and share their with talent in our community, that is what makes our town special.

*This fellow seems angry and lonely... craving attention, any attention that he can find, banging louder when he is angry.

I've seen members of the Men's group try to talk to him to no avail.

One local person even tried to teach him to drum properly and pleasantly.

Maybe the best and only solution right now is to:

1) Find him a job
2) Find a drum teacher
3) Collect fines

At least until arthritis sets in, as there are no civil rights involved here.


jafabrit said...

I rather liked it, even if it is a monotonous beat, but I only have to deal with it for a few mins when I am popping into town. I can certainly appreciate how annoying it would become for others having to listen to it all the time, all day long, YIKES! I hope a compromise can be found, like he can only play for small pockets of a given time in the day or only on Saturdays, or has to move frequently, or is encouraged to choose another location where the impact isn't as bothersome.
Doesn't hurt for him either to be considerate and respectful of how his noise impacts others.
Maybe the town can provide a buskers license for certain days, locations and times. That helps provide a framework that doesn't stop free speech, and considers the local business's, and some income to the town for the privilege of making a racket here. Oh well just a thought.

Anonymous said...

CT here. I'm the downtown apartment resident mentioned several posts previous. To begin with, I love Yellow Springs. This village has been so good to me and for me. I love living right downtown; it may be louder than a residential neighborhood, but I dig downtown YS to the max.

Friends and I used to play music downtown, up to three or four times a month, in the warm months from 1998 to 2003. We still find our way downtown to play maybe once a year. Playing music on Xenia Avenue is a gas. Still, there is a certain etiquette of playing street music. The etiquette illustrates the difference between rudeness and thoughtlessness. I know that some people probably don’t like the music we play, but we play in different spots and not for more than a couple hours max. Like the old Yiddish saying goes, even of creplech, one can grow tired (translated: if served too often, one can grow tired even of one’s favorite meal).

After months of annoyance with the repetitive noise in front of our beloved Tom’s Market, on Saturday April 18, I finally went down and told the fellow making the noise that I thought he was being rude, "playing" the same "beat" six or seven days a week all afternoon long. He was not receptive. I asked him to go play on Dayton Street. He told me I should "go to the cemetery" and he'd play for me there. I went and got my acoustic guitar and played a loud E major chord in his face for about sixteen bars. He got up and waggled his finger in my face, warning me not to "bring out the dark side." I kept up a steady stream of about 64 bars of nothing but a loud E major chord in 4/4 time, asking him if he liked it. He inferred that he was going to assault me. I said that I was flattered that he would be willing to go to jail for me. He told me he'd been to prison before. I kept up my drone of nothing but E major chords. Although the previous post states that I shouted, I believe that I kept my voice volume moderate.

He kept “playing” for about four more hours, but hasn't been back “playing” since. I did learn something. I had grown so annoyed over last few months with his noise that when I finally talked to him, I was not as diplomatic as I ought to have been. Probably the main message that he received from me during the terse ten-minute interchange was that I was a jerk.

His noise is not a criminal matter. To me, it’s just a matter of rudeness, to play the same “beat,” loudly, in the same spot almost daily, for hours, for months.

Finally, in the last week, it’s been great having young SS playing his ukulele in the same spot and today BC and CS played some tuneful blues there.

Anonymous said...

CT ~ Thank you!

This weekend was a pleasure working across the street from the 'bench' that sits in front of Toms, without the monotonous ear piercing drumming for hours on end.

Our store had one of the best weekend sales of the year in just the last two days!

I don't know where he went... but, I am very pleased to of had the refreshing strumming of guitars today courtesy of CS & BC.

Thank you ~ Thank you ~

It was an overdue change in the atmosphere downtown and our business boomed. Shoppers stayed and lingered longer and bought more! Our store really needed the sales!

Thank you again for saying something to him, it apparently helped. :)

(Hats off to CS & BC too!!)

Anonymous said...

Virgil, CT here. I made an error in my post. Could you edit the sentence "The etiquette illustrates the difference between rudeness and thoughtlessness" to properly read "The etiquette illustrates the difference between rudeness and thoughtfulness." Thanks.

Virgil Hervey said...

CT, I don't think I can edit individual comments (and that is probably a good thing), but you have posted your correction and done an excellent job of making your point. All's well that ends well. Let's hope.

Now I'm thinking about doing a piece on the barbeque that sets up in the BP lot a few days a week. Nearby businesses are complaining that the smoke is a nuisance and the restaurants in village are crying unfair competition. Any thoughts..?

jafabrit said...

CT you seem to have handled it just great LOL! and to everyone's benefit too.

all the best

Anonymous said...

CT here. The barbecue stand's music is simply too loud. To be polite, they should turn down the volume. Are they getting a pass on their continually loud music just because Officer Nipper co-owns the BP? However, the smoke is not a nuisance, nor is a food kiosk-type business unfair competition.

Virgil Hervey said...

Thanks for bringing this up, CT. In response, I have placed a poll at the top of the sidebar.