Hospital waiting rooms are a horrid place. You’re either about to be diagnosed with something awful, or in love with someone who is. My San Francisco hospital, in its boundless touchy-feeliness, commissioned a harp player to set up next to us and play harp arrangements of Debussy and other typically floral-sounding songs.
I was waiting there, a worry stone up in my throat. Someone facetiously, as though he were petitioning a band to play Freebird, asked our harpist to play Gangsta’s Paradise, by Coolio. Those who understood the rhetorical slant of such an absurd request quietly smiled in that shared humanity that makes one smile. Those who didn’t understand continued to gaze down at their magazines. And then, as I watched the harpists’ old graceful fingers begin to pluck the strings, I realized what I was listening to. It was “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Each warm note brazed my eyebrows and flew through the ceiling. It was beautiful.
People were not necessarily shocked, because it was a rather melodic rap song, easily adapted to any kind of arrangement; it was just the gift of this song, in our context of hopelessness and acclimated, hospital waiting room pessimism. We didn’t think she would know how to play the song, just as we didn’t think the cyst or tumor would be benign, or the T-cell count high enough, or the stroke reparable. A broken heart is one thing, but a broken heart transplant is something else.
That rap remains considered the “black sheep” of popular music points to a subconscious ambivalence that Americans continue to have with the thirty-plus-year-old genre. Unlike ’70s British punk, it does not always give a middle finger to racism. Its preferred critique is more analogous to a pistol-whipping at the back of the head. Such lyrical allusions signify something. They can discomfiting. Not in this waiting room.
A harp, I guess, is the butt of many jokes, besides a dumb love-lost cupid in the painted sky. Kurt Cobain, a true humorist if you ever read his lyrics, when confounded by the amount of time it was taking to tune his guitar during their inadvertently timeless 1993 MTV Unplugged performance, asked “What are they tuning back there, a harp?” This garnered laughs, and I laughed too. It’s sad that it sometimes takes a sad man to make you laugh. It’s sad that sometimes people blow their heads off.
When the harpist finished the song, people looked around for complicit nods of approval, like “uh huh, I get it, that was cool.” Thinking something is cool is the democracy of taste, an exercise in a less and less democratic world. To the 11-year-old girl who loves Justin Bieber, I say thank you. And it was very cool, that this old harpist lady played a pop-rap song for us, we the worried, the waiting, weighted down by ponderous thoughts concerning our loved ones, those on the other side of the swinging doors, some of whom would die sooner than the rest of us.