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The Music Man

People ask me if I get scared going into strangers' homes, if I worry that I'll stumble upon a sex dungeon or a lone man and his collection of pet squirrels and assault rifles. And to be honest, the movies that scare the crap out of me aren't the ones with a group of kids and a cabin in the woods; the ones that rattle me to the core are those that feature an innocuous house on a suburban street, behind whose door lurks a man who tucks his man parts behind his legs and skins women alive.

When I met Bill on a blustery Saturday in Elkhart, Indiana my mind --and nerve endings -- were alive and jumping like fleas at a dog groomer's. His house was on a thoroughfare that was busy for Elkhart but had a lonely look that suggested its owners had said adios to the cold and gone to Florida for the winter. The sheets of plastic between the windows and the vertical blinds further suggested this. So when I rang the intercom as I was instructed to do by the sign on the main door and a man in his 60's answered, I was somewhat taken aback.

He didn't let me in (which, at least to me, suggests the person is hiding something, adding fuel to the psycho scenario). Instead I introduced myself outside, while he stood in the garage and the smell of fresh exhaust punctuated the cold air. He was brusque, quickly losing patience with my roundabout spiel, possibly because it was cold in there, cold even for a local. Then he gave me his number and suggested I text him the following day to arrange to meet to possibly do the interview.

The next day I sent him a text, and he responded right away. His text went like this: "Too bad we couldn't have met for brunch. It would have been nice to have had a good lookin woman sittin across from me." Yes, he dropped his R's. I wasn't sure how to respond because I did want the interview -- I needed the interview -- but in one simple text he'd changed the game on me -- so I texted him something vague like "that's so sweet!!!" and waited.

I then headed to Elkhart, a rural community in Northern Indiana that makes its neighbor, South Bend, seem like a thriving metropolis. Apparently its main employer, a factory that made RVs, started tanking when the economy did, leaving an area already beaten down by the closing of the steel mills even more depressed. Quaint clapboard homes were alongside makeshift cinderblock structures. Entire lots were empty and overgrown and everywhere I looked there seemed to be a chain link fence. My spirit was sagging just being there.

Also, I was off my turf. I didn't know these people and they didn't know me. I tried my best to dress down as I knocked on doors, wearing a puffy down jacket that at one point was white but was now a shade of beige, and a wool cap. My shoes were as flat as my hair. I didn't know myself anymore.

Bill said he'd be there at three and he was. I was still unsure about him and decided I'd just have to pay attention to every clue that came my way. So when he let me into his place and pointed to the stairs leading down to the basement, my insides did a back handspring. But, on the other hand, he was nice. Not sleazy nice. Nice nice. So I took each step slowly, my mind alternating between trust and fear with each passing second, the voices of everyone from my mother to Gavin De Becker having a roundtable discussion in my head.

When I landed on terra firma he pointed to a wall. There, beautifully arranged, were violins, violas and cellos, presented like models in a Victoria's Secret catalog. "This is what I do," Bill said and suddenly I relaxed. Someone later suggested that it made perfect sense for a serial killer's profession to be violin maker, but at that moment, something melted in me. He was also a musician, jazz musician to be exact, and I remember thinking, how could a jazz musician do harm to anyone?

We did the interview, which turned out to be one of the best interviews I'd done in Indiana. We talked music and the state of the country. We've even stayed in touch since I landed back on home soil.

I'm not saying I was necessarily smart, heading down those stairs. I was trusting and I was lucky. In my mind somehow they two are connected -- that the trust I extend is paid back by kindness. Whether this is true or incredibly naive I don't know. I do know that I'm glad I did -- that day.


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