Slice of Life Story -The Sound of Whistling

I was sitting in my favourite coffee fix café, Via Boffe’ yesterday wandering through some recently written notebook entries, whilst slowly savouring a cappuccino. The café was packed and pulsing with caffeine desperadoes’ A waitress ask me, ‘How do you get inspiration when it’s crazy like this? I glibly replied, ‘I bring it with me.’ I should have more accurately admitted inspiration has its own magic and can take place at any time, anywhere. It’s a matter of whether one is ready to receive it…
I became aware of a sound, an altogether foreign sound in a café -a sound, not unpleasant, but a sound not to be denied. A high lilting sound that swirled through the tiny café like smoke wisps. -not Mini Ripperton high, but high nonetheless. Where was it coming from? I turned in an effort to find its source.

A bald headed man wearing a mostly white t shirt and fawn jeans sat at the front window seat; a place I frequenlty covet when I come to the café. He was whistling, quite loudly, yet pleasantly. On his lap sat an open newspaper and next to him on the shelf facing the window was his coffee. He whistled with the same joy as a bird of the forest. I have to say I have never heard someone whistle in a café in living memory. I felt a sense of dislocation.  It was strangely intriguing to watch and listen to his tuneful whistling. The tune totally unfamiliar to my ears wafted around the café. Somehow it evaded the attention of the other patrons for no one appeared to notice the orchestra of the lips all around them. Conversations were not halted, nor heads  turned (except mine) Café staff continued to go about their appointed tasks without any hint of a whistle stop. I don’t see dead people, but apparently I am the only person who hears café whistlers! 

Presently, whistling man paused to take a sip of his coffee and thumbed through a few pages of the morning news. He rhythmically tapped the bench-top with his fingers.  I turned back to my notebook and feverishly scribbled some notes about this small yet compelling moment in my day.

A short time later, the whistling refrain started once more and with feeling, so I turned for a second time, listening actively. The second concert was noticeably shorter, but just as entertaining.  As I listened to his tuneful virtuosity, I found myself revisiting an earlier experience almost nine years ago to the day in a place on the opposite side of the world, and in another season …

‘Standing at a rather forlorn Brooklyn bus stop directly opposite a funeral parlour had me thinking that the street itself was a cause for grief.

The wind blew along its full length and slapped me squarely in the face. The bus shelter offered little respite from the icy blasts it carried. I was too cold to bother reading the advertising hoarding. And anyway, it hadn’t changed for months.  I wrapped my coat more tightly around me, sunk down into my scarf while jamming my gloved hands into my coat pockets. I felt no warmer for these efforts. Winter plays the part of a bully so convincingly at times. Above the swirling wind, the traffic growled as cars and trucks negotiated the intersection.

I stood in this miserable place along with three women. We stood in silence, bracing ourselves against the bitterness of the day. I was counting down the freezing minutes, willing my bus to arrive.

…And then I heard it. -Faintly at first, but discernable as whistling. Where was it coming from this sweet sound in such a god forsaken place?  It floated above the sounds of winter misery. I realized it was coming from somewhere behind me. I turned to see a tall, thin, elderly man. He was leaning against the wall of a corner deli, directly behind the bus shelter.  A bag slung over his shoulder gave me the impression he was journeying home from a day at work somewhere. He wore a cap made of a stocking type material and a coat that appeared no match for the weather of the day. -His long narrow face reminiscent of the legendary Popeye.  His whiskery face masked in a grey sheen. I kept taking momentary glimpses, not wishing to lock onto to his gaze for fear of making him feel conspicuous, uncomfortable. 

The sound of his whistling rose gently above the wind, the traffic and the surrounding ugliness. It spiralled through the wintery air, embracing my consciousness. He was whistling the sounds of the season. ‘Let heaven and angels sing.’ I had never heard whistling like this. This man made a nightingale sound raucous.  -The rawness of the day surpassed by the lyrical sound of his whistling. I stood silently, listening to this stranger and found myself successfully shutting winter out.  I wondered if the other people were as absorbed as I was at that moment, by one man’s whistling….’ Do you hear what I hear?’  If the beauty of the whistler’s notes were reaching their hearts, their faces failed to reveal their inner joy. They stood like Easter Island statues throughout the entire performance.

The bus arrived just as he launched into ‘Deck The Halls.’ We all eagerly climbed on board. I stood back so that I could get a better look at whistling man, as he boarded the bus. The bus was mercifully devoid of crazies and we all sat in relative peace. I sat opposite the whistling stranger and wondered how he had learned to whistle with such virtuosity. What made him decide to whistle Christmas carols in that drab and depressing place? I’m glad he did of course, but it was a delight I had not expected. I had approached that bus stop contemplating a battle with winter’s freeze and found myself moved by one man’s attitude to life. The simple act of one man’s whistling had refocused my energies.  As I departed the bus near Grand Army Plaza, I passed by the whistling stranger and placed my hand on his shoulder. I thanked him for his beautiful whistling. ‘Thank you sir,’ he replied. ‘Thank you so much’ He offered me the bonus of a smile.

As we went our respective ways, I think we both felt warmed. I was glad that I spoke to him. I could have easily sat in my seat, wrapped in silence, but then he would never have known what pleasure his whistling had provided. Hopefully he will continue to whistle, and others will enjoy the simple pleasure I enjoyed.

Music is all around us just waiting to be heard. Sometimes you hear it in the most unlikely settings and in quite unexpected forms too. The simple act of whistling is a spirit lifter, no doubt in my mind anyway. From a wintery Brooklyn street to a tiny Italian café in Mornington, Australia, it makes no difference- the effect is the same. The spirit is lifted by the sound of another person’s joy.  Power to you, whistlers all…


  1. I love how you shared one story which reminded you of another time and place. Two slices in one! Your words captured the essence of both places. There are too many parts that are wonderfully phrased for me to highlight just one. Great writing!

  2. I love your story, Alan, & just as you did, connected to long ago & hearing my grandfather whistling as you described. I worked hard to whistle as a young child, wanting to emulate him. I never quite made it, but actually enjoy whistling once in a while. I especially liked that you thanked the man, a gift not everyone gives, to go out of their way to acknowledge someone for what they've done. And I love the way you wove your stories together, a satisfying capturing of the experiences.

  3. Woven whistle stops - I have found this to be true myself - that our senses have special ways of connecting memories, creating stories, inspiring us to make a note of an experience.

  4. Hello Alan, you will not believe this, but I actually attempted to whistle, I am absolutely hopeless and I don't particularly enjoy the sound of people whistling but your creative exposition of facts naturally took me by the hand and from a stool in my kitchen here in Anacapri, on a cold winter afternoon led me to Via Boffe in Mornington, I saw you looking at the stranger and Anna at the coffee machine, then I followed you to the bus stop in Brooklyn and all the way until both you and the nightingale man each went his way. Thank you Alan please keep writing,and I agree with you the spirit is lifted by other people's joy.To you and Vicky BUON ANNO from Carlo and myself. ciao Teresa


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