NEW YORK — Paul Stein felt useless — stuck in his Brooklyn brownstone apartment, watching his neighbors suffer deprivations as COVID-19 swept the city.
Then, on television, the retired public-sector lawyer and political activist saw people around the world rallying: “I saw people in France and Italy banging pots and pans out their windows, clapping and singing from balconies. I wanted to do this in my neighborhood. “
He knew what he had to do.
He took out his accordion. And he played.
His stage is the steps leading up to his building, his stoop. “For as long as people have been hanging out on their stoops and socializing with their neighbors, they’ve been doing it from their stoops,” he said. “The natural acoustics of the narrow street bring the music to my neighbors.”
He regularly sings and plays during the nightly 7 p.m. rounds of applause for health care and front-line workers. Over the past few weeks, he has played four, 45-minute concerts.
Stein had played on his block before: scary music for the children on Halloween while his partner Elena handed out candy. This time, he alerted the neighbors with a telephone call. At 71, he’s in a high-risk group. So, he didn’t want to encourage a get-together at close distance.
“I’m very conscientious, he said. “I don’t want to do anything to promote social gathering.”
Stein calls his impromptu concerts the “Emergency Accordion Stoop Extravaganza,” or “EASE.” He decorated a construction helmet with the words “Accordion Extravaganza” on the front and “Keep Back Six Feet” on the back.
“Elena doesn’t like it,” he says, “but I do.”
The accordion is not an instrument beloved by all; it has been the butt of many jokes (What’s the difference between an accordion and a concertina? I takes longer to burn an accordion.) But Stein loves it, and has been playing since he was 8. He has a vast repertoire of songs, and he sometimes adds the melodica, a free-reed type of large harmonica.
“I’m doing mostly instrumentals. … a polka, a tango, the ‘Hokey Pokey,’ and other fun things,” he said. “Sometimes ‘This Land is Your Land;’ ‘La Cucaracha,’ the Mexican hat dance; Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me.’ People like up-tempo things.”
His neighbors seem to appreciate his efforts.
Madeline Chang, who just retired after 20 years teaching in New York City’s schools, and partner Tim Sozen danced on a tiny concrete patch in their front yard.
“We were inspired because the music is so wonderful … so powerful,” Chang said. “It’s its own language.”
Said Stein: “I try to come up with songs of hope. We need to keep our spirits up.”
And regardless, “What’s more Brooklyn than hanging out with your neighbors on the stoop?”