Ragtime solace

Whenever my poet-friend Zisl needs extra money, he borrows my violin and plays it on the street corners. With help from me he has worked himself up on this venerable instrument to at least a one-hundredth of a Heifetz in the playing of rags, especially Scott Joplin's long, slow, bittersweet rag, ''Solace.'' It's his workhorse piece.

Of the many accounts he's given me of his open-air recitals, there is one that is vibrant, I think, with the very soul of the man.

It started one overcast afternoon downtown when the cold was so intense that Zisl was rendering his workhorse with mittens on. Few people were stopping to listen, or even listening without stopping. Hardly any were dropping coins into the open violin case at his feet.

Then, near dusk, three people, a crowd almost, stopped to listen. They looked like a family, a young man and woman and a little girl with soft blue eyes and long black hair. She seemed fascinated by the mittens, thin, closefitting, out-at-fingers. ''How does he play with mittens, Daddy?'' Zisl heard her whisper. Her father shook his head and said, ''Shh.''

As he played, trying not to look at all suspect for putting warmth before technique, Zisl smiled at the girl. She smiled back, edging closer to her father , taking his hand. Oy, he thought, isn't that a beautiful relationship? Your child asks you a question, you tell her, out of respect to the violinist, to be quiet. And look, she doesn't hold it against you, because when shyness overcomes her, she seeks your protection.

For a moment Zisl grew very thoughtful about what he was missing in life. Ah, to have a child, be a father! To have peered into a crib and seen your daughter reaching for the moon; to have wished marrow and health unto her bones; to hold hands with a part of yourself. Not to be heading toward your reckoning unmultiplied, the last of your squiggly line, and after you no more fractions of Heifetz!

But then he saw that his audience, too, had grown thoughtful. It was as if they wished they knew what it was like to stand alone on a corner and play a violin for money; to wrap the spirit in the sweet coat of music. And he realized that what he was, his world - the world of a man with a borrowed violin, no children, and poems - was something to miss, too.

When he finished, the audience clapped. The young father put a dollar in the violin case. His wife, the same. And their daughter, encouraged by nods, put a quarter.

Zisl was about to ask them, with a wink, whether they were thanking him for having played, or for not playing anymore, when, in the child's hair, he saw some white flakes. ''Snow!'' he cried, looking up at the bursting clouds. Smiling at the suddenness, they all said goodbye and went their ways.

The snow fell fast, sticking and piling up, and it wasn't long before steps turned into scrunches. Halfway home, Zisl stopped at the edge of a field to watch some children having a snowball fight. Zip, zoom, the fuzzy balls flew back and forth, plastering laughing targets. Tired of battling the storm, he took out the violin and began to revive himself with rag.

At first the children didn't pay attention to this windfall of entertainment. Then, curious, snowballs in their hands, they ventured over. Though wary, they threw no snowballs at the violinist. Wrapped up to their wide eyes in fleecy scarves, they all just looked and listened.

Zisl closed his eyes and swayed into a dream that they were sheep and he was shepherd, keeping at bay with the staff of music all the hungers and dangers of the world. It was dark before he realized they were gone.

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