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With the national economy stronger than it has been in decades, 1999 was a peak year for good old American consumerism. Timely for a generation of consumers. Nordstrom Inc., one of the nation’s oldest retail legends, approaches its 100th anniversary with over one hundred department stores across the country. Nordstrom profits by targeting untapped consumer resources in cities such as Providence whose shoppers previously crossed state lines to fill their closets and empty their bank accounts. The opening of one of their shiniest new branches, the first in Rhode Island, boasts milky marble floors, the latest in escalator design and Providence’s highest class of designer clad shoppers. Whether you are in Nashville or Anchorage, the quality of merchandise, service, and shopping environment at Nordstrom is set at a high standard. The air is thick with expensive perfume, sales clerks are smartly dressed and excitable, pink cashmere hangs delicately from the racks. Nordstrom Inc, which has done well in the stock exchange and on the internet, attempts to provide a pleasant shopping experience for customers. After a white chocolate mocha at the Nordstrom Café and three expansive floors of warm overhead lighting, most agree. People come for the atmosphere, the fashion, and if they happen to know about Leroy, they come for the music. Sometime in November, a young man from East Providence wandered into Nordstrom with a group of friends, noticed that the black Steinway on the first floor was silent, sat down, and began to play. As his fingers rolled an eclectic mix of gospel, jazz, and blues across the ivory keys, a crowd of shoppers abandoned their purchases, literally dropped their bags, to surround the piano, drawn by the music to this magnetic musician. No one had heard anything like it, especially in a department store. Stephanie in jewelry dialed Merideth on the third floor. Nineteen year old Leroy Robinson landed himself a job.
Three months later at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning, uncomfortable with the silence of slow business, Leroy evokes the same reactions for the few who meander in. Entranced stares. Commending nods. Grown men surround the Steinway to tap their feet, clench their fists, and in a few octaves above their natural ability, sing fragmented lyrics to old jazz tunes. He appears lost in a world of improvisational music but he looks up to acknowledge the customers and smiles at every last one.
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Leroy disappears and returns with a whipped cream mustache and a dollop on his nose. "They just love me over there," he says motioning toward the entrance to the mall. The "grande" hot chocolate from the Nordstrom Café is swirled with whipped cream that extends four inches beyond the level of the cup. He savors every sip, searching for the well-buried hot chocolate. His arrogance is muffled by a charming childishness. "I am very attractive, sometimes the girls hound me." He smiles. There is someone special, Erika, who he accidentally refers to as his wife then smacks his forehead chuckling. "She doesn’t know about all of this attention. She doesn’t know that girls walk in and throw money at me. I am in high demand here." Leroy senses that even his boss, Merideth, has been showing interest in pursuing an "unprofessional" relationship. The corners of his mouth creep into a smile at the idea of a lunch-date with his boss. And the women aren’t the only perk. "I buy my clothes here now - twenty percent off, though. I ain’t going to buy this shit for no eighty-five dollars." Dressed in a navy cable-knit sweater, pressed Dockers, cross-trainer socks and brown lace-up shoes, Leroy hides his age well. Even still, he defies peoples expectations of what a department store pianist should look like. The two other pianists who work regular shifts, both classically trained, don’t invoke the same customer reaction. Terry, who works in women’s footwear, refers to the music of Leroy’s co-workers as "soothing and relaxing." Debbie could pass as a kindergarten teacher and Brian, an older gentleman, plays the piano twice a week in a Disney tie and a pale gray suit. According to their mission statement, Leroy’s employers "value the richness that diversity brings to our workforce." In 1998. 37.2 percent of Nordstrom employees were people of color. Despite the efforts of the "Minority Recruitment and Support Program," Leroy feels out of place. Fully aware that he falls somewhere outside the Nordstrom mold, Leroy works in an industry eager to serve the middle-upper class customers which, despite the "recruited" workforce remain primarily white. Leroy says, "People always think I am stealing something when I walk around the place. And when I sit down at the piano they think, hey, what is this guy doing here? People don’t want to see me here because I ain’t white, but I’ve got something to prove." Leroy is a Seminole Indian. "I ain’t African American," he says, like he has been asked to play Duke Ellington one too many times. "I came from Florida. Florida to Rhode Island, that’s the only migration I did. I didn’t get here on no boat." The Florida Seminole, descendants of the Creek Indian and escaped slaves, are proud and natural fighters. Eventually ushered onto a reservation in Oklahoma, Leroy’s tribe has staunchly defended their uniqueness and independence, constantly resisting outside categorizations. "Look at that young black pianist," he hears people say. But he says it with a smile. Leroy is used to surprising people and he is used to defending his heritage, his music, his pride.
At Hope High School, Leroy used his fists the way he has learned to use his music. "Once, at the end of the school year I almost cracked this guy’s head open. Had to show him what I was made of. But when I get mad I play. My music talks to me. My music tells me who I am and where I come from." In his first week on the job, a nameless individual complained to management that Leroy’s upbeat chords were distracting the customers. Stephanie, protective of her favorite pianist, gave Leroy the scoop. "I was going to beat the shit out of that guy, lay him out after work. I am a small guy, but you don’t mess with me." Marilyn smoothed over the situation and the two are civil. But Leroy never forgets. "I’ve been screwed over a lot in my life so I am careful." Last June, the same month as his high school graduation, Leroy entered a contest sponsored by Al Conte, a local classical pianist, with a $250 dollar prize. "I played "Autumn Leaves" to get to the semifinals and knocked out the competition. The two others in that round quit because they didn’t want to go up against me, knew they were going to lose. So there I was in the finals, working the crowd with a little gospel, then I hit them with some jazz. I thought there was going to be a riot when I lost to this skinny girl. I had white people sticking up for me, shouting at the judges. It just wasn’t right. Two fifty, man. That’s money." The concert was for classical pianists but Leroy insists that the money should go to the crowd’s favorite. Although he acknowledges the influence of classical music, he says, "White people don’t even listen to that shit anymore. That’s from back in the 1800s, it’s just not the style anymore." His brow lowers with determination. "Next year I am coming back. I should have pounded Al Conte for letting that little chicken win." He shrugs innocently at his choice of terminology. Recently, he played gospel at a Church fundraiser. The preacher told the congregation, "we’re going to raise an orphan for brother Leroy today," referring to a church tradition in which Leroy would please the crowd while they emptied their pockets, supposedly, to support the welfare of a local orphan. Shaking his head, "I walked out of that place with thirty bucks. I don’t do church gigs no more. I get screwed and the preacher drives off in a brand new Cadillac. It ain’t right." Leroy drives a Cadillac too but when he mentions a CD gig that Merideth, his adoring boss, is helping him pursue, his eyes light up. He asks about studios excitedly. "I’ve got about twenty four songs to put on this CD, four with lyrics. A good variety. Nordstrom is like advertising, you know?" Leroy claims that he helps people to concentrate and focus on their shopping. On a Tuesday morning, however, there are more people surrounding the piano than there are browsing through the racks. His music seems to have the opposite effect. At nineteen he is a paid musician and an exceptional businessman. He keeps his business cards, which read, Leroy Robinson, At The Piano, under the lid of the grand piano. "Geez, I am running out." In the next few months he’s lined up a few weddings and a funeral. "That’s good money. If you’re going to get married, you are going to pay the price." Graduating high school, Leroy wanted to be a mortician. "Too much dedication, though. So I thought maybe I would just help out." Perhaps bringing his music to mourners in the occasional "funeral gig" is what he meant by "helping out." It isn’t all about the money. Leroy loves his music and he loves coming to work everyday. "Except Mondays," he says, clinching his thick fingers into fists which crack sharply at the joints He works a five hour shift. Still, he says, "This job is easy and fun and I get paid a lot to hang out in a mall. I get better everyday. Music is a language and I am just beginning to understand it." Even when the store is empty, he finds motivation in the keys. "Sometimes mothers will come in with their little kids and I play softly, put them to sleep. That makes me happy and it makes the mothers happy too." Leroy loves to play for kids. Exposed to music at a young age, he remembers the feeling he got listening to "the great ones," although he has only been playing the piano for five years.
Born at St Joseph Hospital on the 9th of December, 1980, he comes from East Providence, a small house where he was raised by his mother. She didn’t push her son into music but she dragged him into church every Sunday where he learned to play Gospel on the drums. His father played the saxophone but was "not around" for thirteen years. Leroy changes the subject. At nine he began to sing for his Sunday school choir and first fell in love with music. "I would fall in love with the songs then with the feeling I got singing them." Denise, his choir instructor, told him, Leroy, you are going to be a master of music someday. Everyone knew he had a gift but " no one ever expected I would have picked the piano," he says. He started playing at fifteen. By eighteen he was directing the Hope High School band. "I put a big inspiration on them," he says, referring to fellow musicians. "When I used to play with the band I would say, Gerald, (the official director) I want to do this right. I wanted to direct-walk the baseline, don’t carry the chords! And Gerald used to say, this kid is a leader." He plays without music, without looking at the keys. "We used to have this unbelievable bass player. When I first met him I used to say, Bill, you suck! And he would want to prove me wrong. He got so mad that he made himself better. I would give him some direction and he would question me. Just do it, I would say. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is proper, don’t it sound better, Bill?"
Leroy cannot tell you his favorite musician. He cannot list his musical inspirations. He’ll tell you he doesn’t have any. "Nope. No inspiration, just myself." Whether or not he credits the root of his musical interest and ability, Leroy plays Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington, and most people tell him that he "plays it even better." "Do you know the "A-Train?" Baa ba doo bop bop." No. "Do you know "Sing-Sing?"" Embarrassed, no. "Sure you do, ba ba ba ba da÷boooo ba ba." He never stops playing, although he takes half-hour "hot chocolate" breaks every hour. After a classic Sinatra number, popular with two elderly women who giggle as they disappear up the escalator, Leroy’s keys ring with a completely different sound. His eyes shut tightly and his fingers suddenly tense, he sings along to an old gospel song, "Jesus is the Center of my Heart." Nordstrom customers feel Leroy’s music and it’s hard not to notice how much he feels the music himself. Fully aware that his target audience is not the Chopin-listening type, Leroy plays whatever gets the best reaction although he realizes that "out of thirty people, I’ll get one jerk every time who doesn’t like what I am playing." He won’t compromise. He is too proud to play what people expect to hear. "Leroy’s style is very particular," says Merideth, in a voice somewhere between concern and regret. "People either love his style or they don’t know what to make of it. Here at Nordstrom, we need to cater to a variety of people with a recognizable sound." By recognizable she means typical. Leroy, who doesn’t read sheet music, plays improvisationally. It is the only way he knows how. Merideth says, "He creates his own music in his mind and in that area, his talent is extraordinary. He is brilliant at what he does, passionate, and if he studied music he has a lot of potential." Her enthusiasm trails off. She pauses and clears her throat. "He isn’t with us anymore. We let him go yesterday." No more information could be legally disclosed. Merideth says in an uncomfortably upbeat voice, "His repertoire just wasn’t large enough. We demand a higher standard here at Nordstrom."
Although Nordstrom attempts to ensure the same level of comfort and quality in every store, the Providence branch had a unique advantage. People came to enjoy the oversized beige chairs and the music of a young pianist who played from his heart for free. It is rare to find culture at a mall. It is even more rare to leave a mall feeling satisfied without shopping bags. But the sale must be made. According to Merideth, whose interest in Leroy was always his charm moreover his talent, "We have an obligation to uphold certain traditions." Leroy Robinson, who envisioned a life-long career behind the Steinway at Nordstrom, was replaced the day after he was fired. People can go back to their shopping. Who knows what is next for Leroy. Some traditions aren’t meant to be broken. Some department stores are not meant to be concert halls. And some dreams take time to come true.
Most shoppers won’t know what they are missing. They will pass by Brian or Debbie or Leroy’s replacement on their way to the sale rack next to the lounge. It doesn’t really matter whether the soft-rock inspired melodies are piped from the speakers or echoing from the shiny grand piano. It all sounds the same. But Stephanie remembers the crowds of customers who gawked at Leroy’s talent, who sang along and smiled. She will miss her favorite pianist, "Leroy added some jazz to every workday," she said. Shoppers might not leave humming happily but they will leave with shopping bags, and Nordstrom Inc. will climb to the top of the consumer market with or without his music. And "That is the Way Life Goes," sings Leroy, improvising lyrics to a tune he plays everyday, differently every time.