The Piano and an American Dream

Published on: July 8, 2015


Steven Humbert playing the now-famous piano in front of the Clásico Cafe and Bar on Sarasota’s Main Street. Mitch Traphagen photos.

Steven Humbert playing the now-famous piano in front of the Clásico Cafe and Bar on Sarasota’s Main Street. Mitch Traphagen photos.

Steven Humbert has a job. He cuts grass for a living, an occupation to which his deeply tanned and leathered skin testify. Despite his job, sometimes he is homeless. He lives in a motel right now, but when the money runs out, he tries to find space in a shelter. He was born in Tampa but lives in Sarasota. In too many Florida cities, like too many places elsewhere, it can be difficult to earn a living wage.

But he begrudges no one, even as a stream of obvious wealth passed in front of him: Bentleys, Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsches. He has lived in this area all of his life and plans to die here.

He started playing the piano three years ago. He is self-taught. “God gave us two ears and one mouth,” he said. “So I listen. I don’t always use the right fingers for the right keys.”

Right fingers or not, there were no missed notes as he played Tiny Dancer by Elton John or songs by Journey or, most movingly, his own hauntingly beautiful compositions. He has a true and instinctive talent for music. Particularly, it seems, the piano. Had life provided a different draw of the cards, he may well be playing somewhere to large, appreciative audiences.

DSC03576-streetpianoThe piano he plays, one of several “public pianos” installed around downtown Sarasota, is famous. Little more than a week ago, a homeless veteran named Donald Gould was captured on video playing it. Since then, more than five million people have seen that video. And Gould has since appeared on several national television shows and has had a public funding site set up for him that has reportedly raised more than $30,000 to give him a second chance at life.

Steven knows Donald, but doesn’t begrudge him, either. That’s not how he works. He has a job for which he’s grateful. He said the people at the Clásico Cafe and Bar, in front of which the famous piano sits, are nice to him.

“What an honor and privilege it is to get to play,” he said. “And these people treat me well.”

As the hot, midday sun bore down on the piano and his tanned, leathered skin, he stroked the keys seemingly without effort as wealth passed endlessly in front of him. Most of the few people out and about in the summer heat would stop and listen to him play, even if for a few minutes.

He worries about finding a place to live in an increasingly expensive city, but right then he had his music. He was happy. It was all he needed.

Two blocks down from Steven and the piano, cranes towered — building more high-rise, Gulf-view condominiums for money he’ll likely never know. But I wish he would. Steven works for a living. But he’s also an artist; undiscovered, unrealized but appreciated by those who heard him play.

The American Dream remains, much of it is hard work, but some of it also dependent on the luck of the draw in life’s cards.

Finding enough food and a place to live come first for many Americans. But when Steven played, the dream seemed alive on his face. It was Independence Day.