Shared from the 3/31/2020 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

City Insider

A soulful bagpiper comforts the Castro

Constanza Hevia H. / Special to The Chronicle

Hal Wilkes plays at sunset for his Castro neighbors from his building’s rooftop. His music has become a nightly touchstone.

Hal Wilkes was a bit glum on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s usually one of the busiest, most profitable days of the year for his Irish Pipers Band, the oldest pipe band west of the Mississippi.

But it was the first day of San Francisco’s new shelter-inplace reality, and nobody was doing much of anything. Let alone listening to pipe bands.

As is so often the case, his mother knew best. Inspired by those tear-jerker viral videos of Italians on lockdown playing music for each other from their balconies, she texted her son a suggestion.

Why didn’t he play his bagpipes for his struggling neighbors, now instructed to stay inside to curb the coronavirus outbreak?

Legend has it the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a town in Germany, piped during the Black Plague to drive away plagueinfested rats. Now, at his mother’s urging, the Castro’s Pied Piper plays to lure people holed up to avoid our modernday plague outside.

That first night, Wilkes climbed the back wooden stairs of his apartment building, ambled up to the highest point on his roof next to the skylights, waited until sunset and played. Just one song. When it comes to the bagpipes, you don’t need more than that.

“Bagpiping is like Tabasco sauce,” explained Wilkes. “A little on food makes it interesting. Too much? Nah.”

Wilkes was surprised by the response. The music in our suddenly quiet city carried — far. People leaned out their windows and walked out on their balconies to listen. After the song, he could hear clapping and cheers rolling down the hills. People reported hearing it from Noe Valley, a mile away.

So he played at sunset the next night, and the crowd grew. And the next night, it grew again. Neighbors took videos on their iPhones. They brought drinks to cheer each other from afar. Sometimes they brought their own instruments to play after Wilkes’ tune concluded. A violin one night. A saxophone the next.

The sunset serenade played on a Sanchez Street rooftop near 18th Street has quickly become a reassuring nightly touchstone in a city desperate for one. Neighbors who’ve lived near each other for years but hadn’t bothered to meet are now chatting across their back wooden staircases and balconies, which have the slightly ramshackle, artsy look of Barbary Lane from “Tales of the City.” The single song draws the Castro neighbors outside, but the camaraderie keeps them there long after the sun has set and the pipes are put away.

“I like the ritual of it,” said Eytan Bakshy, adding it’s fitting that bagpipes have a mournful tone. “I like that it’s a little sad.”

“I love it, but in measured doses,” said Ruth Nott, who lives next door to Wilkes and said she’s glad he doesn’t practice much inside. “Out in the open like this, it’s beautiful.”

Neil Gupta takes a video of the bagpiping each night from his deck, which is farther away.

“It’s lovely,” he said — or more like shouted. “The first night I didn’t know what the sound was. Like, is that bagpiping? That can’t be bagpiping. I don’t know whether Hal’s gotten better or I’ve grown to appreciate it, but it’s very lovely.”

It must be that Gupta has grown to appreciate it because Wilkes has been a professional bagpiper for decades.

Wilkes, who is in his 50s but declined to be specific, has Scottish ancestry on both sides. He fell in love with the bagpipes when he was a 10­year-old growing up in Sonoma County and was forced by his family one afternoon to “sit on a sidewalk and watch a dumb parade.” A pipe band played in the festivities, and Wilkes no longer found anything dumb about it.

He took lessons, played in a host of pipe bands and became a professional bagpiper making his living mostly in the funeral industry, but playing for other occasions, too.

“My peers were making a buck-72 an hour flipping burgers in the hot kitchens of McDonald’s, and I was showing up at funerals playing ‘Amazing Grace’ at a gravesite for anywhere from $30 to $40,” he said.

“You pipe the bride down the aisle,” he continued. “You pipe the casket to the grave. And you pipe the sun down.”

He has played for members of the British royal family, politicians and celebrities, and counts himself a very lucky man. Not just because he loves his job, but because he has lived in the same Castro district apartment for 29 years and has “very good rent control.”

That apartment is decorated in true Anglophile fashion. There’s a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in his living room. A pillow with the Union Jack flag. And lots and lots of plaid.

But it’s the roof that may be the most special. His apartment sits in a valley with hills on all sides, and it’s easy to see why the music carries so far.

Spin in a circle up there and you’ll see a montage of San Francisco landmarks: Buena Vista Park, the tip of the TransAmerica Pyramid, Salesforce Tower glittering with its latest light show, Mission High’s bell tower, the palm trees of Dolores Park and Sutro Tower framed by the pink clouds of sunset.

It was a longtime tradition of his to climb to the roof on New Year’s Eve and pipe “Auld Lang Syne” right after the fireworks finished. But his new routine isn’t a once-a-year thing. It’s an every night thing, and he has vowed to continue as long as San Franciscans are obligated to stay home.

A few nights ago, he positioned himself on the roof. The sky grew darker. Lights began twinkling in hillside homes. If you squinted, you could see people on their sidewalks holding glasses in the air. People perched on their balconies and peered out their windows. They were ready for their evening show.

Wilkes waited until exactly 7:35 p.m., the time the sun set behind Sutro Tower. And then he played. He chose Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” as covered by Bob Dylan because, he figured, it describes our current misery well.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at the door. Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, “Oh, hard times, come again no more.”

The sorrowful, yet stirring tune lasted just a minute or two, and then he was done. Applause erupted from blocks away. “Thank you!” people shouted. “We love you!” exclaimed others.

Like he always does, Wilkes raised a glass to his neighbors and nodded.

“We’ll get through this!” he hollered back.

And we will.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf

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