The Contraband

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You can imagine a generic suburban bar, trying to be cool and grungy, right? You have the spotless floors done up in some dirty-looking pattern. You have mass-manufactured memorabilia lining the walls. Memorabilia which is identical to that on every other wall in the entire chain. You have the smell of food that isn’t really too greasy filling the air. And, most importantly, you have the people. They aren’t grungy or beat up. They are safely middle-class: clean, drug-free, well-fed and well-dressed.

You can imagine that, right?

This wasn’t that place.

I was downtown, but I wasn’t in the classy part of downtown. Instead, I was on a stage in the worst bar I’d ever seen. The floors were genuinely dirty and there were no memorabilia on the walls. The place smelled like a mix of mold, sugary soda, body odor, and urine. It made its money on the cover charge: $3 to get in. The ‘guests’ were paying for access to the bathrooms. Not just as bathrooms, although that was useful to them. They were really paying for a place to shoot up. You could see it in their eyes as they emerged from the stalls; tiny pupils revealed the freshly deposited opiates in their bloodstreams. In a unique twist, there wasn’t even alcohol on tap. The places had to be able to welcome all ages. Homeless parents didn’t want to leave their kids outside while they did drugs in the bathrooms. They loved their kids.

The place had live music. They didn’t pay the acts much though; they weren’t the point. They were only there so the clientele could shuffle like zombies in the back of the room and the management could pretend they weren’t just a clearing house for those buying and selling illicit substances. Of course, it was all done with a wink. After all, the place was called The Contraband.

But, they had to keep up the front. So, they had music. And, that night, the music was me.

I was a violist of all things. I went to college for it. I graduated with honors. I had perfect technique. I was almost robotic in my capabilities. And I’d tried to make a career out of it. My parents thought I was ridiculous. I came from one of those firmly middle-class backgrounds. I was supposed to become a professional of some sort; a respectable woman. I certainly wasn’t meant to end up in a place like this.

But I had ended up here. And the reason was simple: I didn’t have a voice. I could play a mean viola, and I could play pretty much any genre. But all I had was technique. I didn’t have any soul. And so, I graduated from college and I did everything I could for a gig. I played alternative viola in those middle-class bars. I played country viola (just think of a deep fiddle) in the country. And then I lost those gigs; I didn’t fire people’s imaginations. And so now I was playing punk viola – my instrument shouting at the room – in places like these.

In the classier places, people would talk about my technique. Even here, at The Contraband, they’d come out of their stupor long enough to ask me where I’d learned how to play. But nobody ever said I spoke to them through my music. I was just a touch of light entertainment. A robot could have done what I was doing.

That was why I knew, when men talked to me, that they weren’t interested in my music. And when men in a place like this talked to me, they scared me. Not that The Contraband was unique in that way. I couldn’t trust any of the men I met when I worked. When I was working the middle-class bars, the men tended to be married. And here? Here, they tended to be dangerous.

But that night was different. That night, I was thrashing my viola. And, sitting in the back of the room, was a skeleton of a man nursing a soda from the skeleton of a ‘dry’ bar. He was thin, desperately thin. His glasses were way out of fashion. His clothes were cheap, ill-fitting and old. Not like he was poor, but like he didn’t care about how others saw him.

And he was staring at me.

I hadn’t noticed him at first. At first, he’d blended into the crowd. But when I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He was enthralled by me and I was enthralled by him. After the set, he didn’t come up to me. And I didn’t go to him. And when I finished for the night, he just wasn’t there. He’d vanished completely. I asked others about him, but nobody had noticed that he was there.

I had another gig, in another place, a few days later. It was a step up (it was hard to do anything other than a step up). But The Contraband wanted me too. I was good cover – punk viola made it look like they were about the music. And I decided, there and then, to go back. I wanted to see that skeleton of a man.

I started my act and then, at some point, I looked up and he was there again. Staring at me just like he had before. He was frightening in his intensity. I knew I should have avoided him. But I couldn’t help myself. After my set I walked up to him and I asked him who he was. And he just looked at me. I could see something strange in his eyes. There was fear. And there was, could it be, love? He was wrestling with himself, trying to decide what to do. And then he turned to the bar, and scribbled something down on a piece of paper. He handed it to me and I took it. And then he got up, wordlessly, and just walked out.

I looked at the paper, confused. There were three shorts lines on it. An address.

The creepy skeleton of a man in the bar had given me an address.

Any sensible person would probably have burned the thing. They probably would have stopped playing this sort of venue. But I couldn’t do that. I stuffed the address in my pocket and I went back to playing. And then, over the next few days, I played the encounter through my head again and again. What did the man want? What was he up to? Was he dangerous?

I looked up the address.

Google Earth revealed the place was a shack surrounded by tall grass and abandoned lots in a part of town that was actually crappier than The Contraband itself. It wasn’t the sort of place I should visit. It wasn’t that I was a middle class girl. Even a woman ‘in the trade’ knew better than to go to abandoned buildings to visit strange men who handed them addresses in the backs of places like The Contraband.

And so, two weeks passed. I played at The Contraband every chance I got, but he wasn’t there. The address burned in my pocket, filling me with questions and a strange kind of yearning I couldn’t quite place. I had to see the man again. I had to understand why he had given me that address.

And so, one day, I gave in.

It was stupid. But I had to see him again, and I had to understand.

And so, I took the bus to the worst part of town. For some reason, I took my viola with me. When I got off the bus, the streets were basically empty. It was a threatening absence, like attackers could emerge from anywhere at any time. You could smell the grasses and the faint odor of dangerous men who had been here not long before. For that moment, I was grateful for my own poor clothes. Except for the viola, I didn’t look like a target.

I walked down the street – past derelict buildings and falling houses and empty lots overgrown with glass bottles and grass. And then I came to the address he had given me. It looked abandoned. There was a chain link fence around it. But somebody had cut some of the links. And there was a shack in the middle of the lot, barely held together and patched with blue plastic tarps.

There were no windows.

I sucked in a huge breath and then shimmied through the fence, crossed the rough ground and came up to the door of the shack itself. I paused, and then I knocked on the door. It swung open, on creaking hinges. It was dark inside; there was no electricity. There was a faint smell of the rotted wood planking that held the place together. And there was a faint blue glow, cast by the tarps that covered the shack’s poorly joined corners.

I should have stopped then, but I didn’t. I pushed the door all the way open and I walked inside.

It took my eyes a little while to adjust. And then I saw him. The man. He was sitting in the corner, on a plastic chair. He looked at me, that combination of fear and love in his eyes.

And I looked at him, realizing I somehow felt the same way. And then he began to sing.

I don’t know how to describe what I heard in that broken-down shack. It was harsh and biting and discordant. But at the same time, it was the most intensely beautiful thing I have ever encountered. The walls seemed to echo with the love and mercy and power of that man’s voice. I didn’t hear any words, just notes. Notes that seemed to be piled one on top of the other like unwashed plates after a family meal, or like layers of silt in a running stream, or like books that have been lovingly consumed by a voracious reader.

It seemed like I would drift away in that music. By the sadness, by the joy, by the wisdom contained within those notes. But then the man touched my hand, bringing me back. And he kept singing.

I watched him, I watched his face. He was illuminated by his wordless song.

It seemed like all the world was in that voice. It seemed like you could disappear into the vastness of what he sang. I knew his song was rebuilding me from the inside out.

And then he was done.

The place was silent. There were just the two of us, standing there, looking at one another with something far closer to love than to fear. I wanted to ask why he didn’t he didn’t perform. I wanted to ask why he wasn’t on stage. But then he let go of my hand and I knew the answer.

Most people couldn’t hear that music and stay themselves. They would drift away, as I almost had. I realized what his fear had been – it was fear that I wouldn’t have been able to hear his music. He had kept me there, with the touch of his fingertips. Without his touch, I could have vanished, happily erased within the beauty of his voice.

We didn’t speak, even then. But his music became a part of me.


And then I knew why he had brought me there.

I left then. We still hadn’t exchanged a single snippet of conversation. But we had shared so much more. And so, I left. And I went back to The Contraband. But now my music was different. I had his music inside of me. I played and watched the zombies turn and pull themselves back into reality. I touched them. I touched their souls. When my set ended, they just stood there, eagerly waiting for more. And I got other opportunities then. I played in other places. And I changed people; everywhere I went. I thought about making a record or an mp3. But, somehow, I knew this this music wasn’t meant for records.

It had to be transmitted in person – person to person. You had to be there to feel it.

I played larger and larger venues. I laminated that old address and I wore it like a necklace. Tucked under my blouse. It was a constant reminder of the risk I had taken. Overnight, it seemed like I became a sensation. You couldn’t listen to my tunes on the radio or on YouTube. You had to come and listen, in person.

I was the modern artist who did nothing modern.

And I knew he was behind my music. And others sensed it as well. He had given me a spirit and I had given him a voice. Everybody knew that I was expressing the soul of another artist. And I was okay with that, for a time. I was touching their souls. And every so often, I would even go back to that shack. And I would listen to the voice of a man I knew better than any other.

I became more and more successful. But then, somehow, I began to believe was responsible for my success. It began to anger me that I was simply channeling his music.

I wanted my own voice. I wanted to get out from under the thumb of the skeleton of a man.

And so, almost as if I was rebelling against his rule, I shut out his music. I tried to find my own voice, borrowing from the genres that surrounded me. I went back to the punk viola and the rock viola and the pop viola.

But everything fell apart.

My music had no life. As hard as I tried, it had no soul. People left my shows, disappointed. And then I climbed back down the ladder of success. I realized my mistake, of course. But it was too late.

When I tried to play his music once again, it was gone.

There was a void where his love had once been.

I even went back to the shack, again and again. But it was always empty.

It seemed like nobody had ever been living there.

I was cursed again; playing The Contraband. Drug addicts asked me where I learned my technique.

But nobody was touched by what my music had to say.


And then, one evening, in that drug-infested venue, I had a revelation. It wasn’t that I suddenly realized my music had no soul, I’d known that before. And it wasn’t that I suddenly realized that my music offered no chance of success or fame; I’d already figured that out.

No, I knew, in that instance, that my music was destined to vanish. I played it and it disappeared almost as soon as the notes left my bow. It was like I was playing a melody, and it was consumed by a waiting void.

I wanted to cry then. I knew there was another path. The man’s voice might not have been mine alone, but it was the voice I was meant to have. The music he gave me flew off my bow, resonating through the deep cavities of my viola and seemed to fill the space around me. Hisnotes seemed to stay within those who heard them, a timeless after-effect that gave meaning to my life and to the lives of those who heard me.

His was the music of eternity.

And he had chosen me to play it.

And in that instant, I felt his music once again. And I began to play his music once again. And I was filled with joy at the opportunity. It wasn’t about fame or money. It was about giving reality to something far greater than I could ever be.

I played that music. I closed my eyes and I imagined myself back in that shack. I heard his voice within me and I shared it with the world around me. And the zombies stopped and pulled themselves back into reality. And I kept playing, imagining the music spinning out, far beyond the walls of The Contraband. I imagined it touching the bums in the street, the police in their cars, the suburbanites in their suburban houses and the couples gazing out over the slowly moving downtown river.

I imagined that music filling the world. And I imagined the beauty it could bring.

I then I opened my eyes and he was there, just like the first time. He was watching me from the ‘dry’ bar. His eyes were full of forgiveness. And his eyes were full of love. There was no fear.

And I felt the tears streaming from my eyes. Tears of joy and tears of longing and tears of regret as I remembered what I had abandoned in service of my pride.

I knew then that he was my soul and I was his voice.

And I kept playing, the laminated address resting under my blouse.

I knew I had to keep playing. I knew I had to bring his music to the world.

I watched the skeleton of a man smile.

And I wondered, just for a moment, if he was really there.


We just emerged from Yom Kippur. The centerpiece of that festival is the offering of Az-Azel. There are two goats in that offering. Both represent the Jewish people. But one is dedicated to our timeless relationship with G-d. The other is dedicated to Az-Azel, the goat of disappearance. The lesson is this: we can be dedicated to G-d and connect with the timeless or we can follow another path and disappear as if we never existed.

The action represents the moment of Kaparah – of sealing ourselves against the spiritual rot of the world. It is the moment of forgiveness and the moment of repair. We listen to the shofar, hearing the shadow of the voice of G-d, and then we recognize that all else is vanity – and we return to Hashem.

But what have we returned to? Is it wealth? Is it success? What are we seeking?

The answer comes with Sukkot. Sukkot has three prominent features.

The first is the Arba’at Haminim (the four species). They represent the strength of our relationship with G-d. The first, Pri Etz Hadar means ‘fruit of a beautiful tree’. Trees are divine blessing. The most beautiful tree is the covenant with G-d. And the Torah is its fruit. The second, Anaf Eitz Avot is also a gift from G-d (as indicated by the eitz, or tree). Anaf appears nowhere else in Chumash – it is mysterious. Avot (with an eyin) is used to describe the gold (Divine) braid that surrounds and connects the stones with the names of the tribes of Israel on the Kohen’s clothes. The Anaf Eitz Avot thus represents Hashem’s mysterious desire to embrace us. The third, Kapot Temarim are ‘palms of Tamarim’. Palms hold things and hands represent action. Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Yehuda, took her life into her own hands to be a part of the people. Her palms thus represent our desire to be with Hashem. And Arvei Nachal is the ‘brook willow’. It can also literally mean ‘mixed stream.’ We are G-d’s Nachal – spreading His spiritual waters and mixing the human and the divine. Arvei Nachal represents our gift to Him.

These four species represent the G-d’s gift to the Jewish people, our gift to Him and our mutual desire to be together. We wave the representation of that relationship, and we celebrate with G-d.

This is represented in the story by the playing of the music (the mutual gift) and by the laminated tag – a reminder of risks violist’s took to be with the singer and of his mysterious embrace of her.

The second feature is the timeless ‘Sukkah’ we stayed in when we first left our exile. That is the shack where we dwelt with Hashem and heard His music for the first time.

The third feature is the offerings. We bring offerings, but not just on our own behalf. We bring offerings on behalf of the nations. We bring the nations to G-d and G-d to the nations – just as the violist does when playing the final set of the story.

But we have not finished this task. And so the offerings thus represent not just our mutual relationship, but the incompleteness of our gift to him.

For me the lesson is clear: we have returned to G-d, but a tremendous effort remains before us.

In the year to come, we must find ways to play the music of our G-d to the world.

It is our gift, it is our responsibility – and it is the core of our being.

Hashem may not be sitting before us, but He remains within us. He is our soul, and we are His voice.

Chag Sameach.

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Image: Bart Everson, Flickr

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.

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