Idled by the virus, a bagpiper uses his Brooklyn street corner to honour the dead

Kevin Armstrong

THE WASHINGTON POST – Mike Mallazzo walked along Seventh Avenue in Park Slope and took note of John Henderson, a densely built bon vivant with bagpipes under his left arm. Henderson, clutching a milk stout, stood outside American Cheez, a shop Mallazzo frequents. Mallazzo grew concerned.

“This isn’t an Irish funeral, right?” Mallazzo said. “They’re not closing, right?”

“No, no,” Henderson said. “I’m just playing.”

“I got a little scared,” Mallazzo said. “I’ve seen bagpipes mean bad things.”

Henderson, 56, did not intend to haunt. On Fridays amid the pandemic, the Iowa native walks six doors down from his house here in Brooklyn, stands alone on the corner and plays to honour the dead – 22,000 and counting, according to city data – in his adopted city.

John Henderson plays his bagpipes in Brooklyn every Friday at 7pm. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Neighbours lean out windows; others watch from rooftops. Drivers honk car horns; policemen flash lights. Requests come; applause follows.

“Play ‘Scotland the Brave!'” shouted one dog walker.

Proper gigs are rare these days. In March, the busiest month on the bagpiper’s calendar, Henderson’s competitive band, Saffron United, stepped off at only one St Patrick’s Day parade. Then, “the unthinkable” happened, he recalled. The city cancelled its legendary celebration for the first time in more than 250 years.

The world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, where he planned to compete in August, were called off, too. And then the funerals. Because of New York’s social-distancing restrictions, cemetery directors limited burials to 10 mourners. Henderson, who has played everywhere from Radio City Music Hall to Woodlawn Cemetery, was left to idle, tuning his pipes and timing his steps.

“I thought I had a line on a gig to stand across the street from someone’s house,” he said, “but nothing came of it.”

Henderson first heard a call for bagpipers almost 20 years ago. In October 2001, he listened to a radio newscaster assert there weren’t enough pipers in the city to play all of the police officer and firefighter funerals following the 9/11 attacks. Later that week, while in his NYU office not far from Ground Zero where he worked in information systems, a pipe band marched by in a Halloween parade.

“I heard children laughing rather than people weeping,” he said. “I could still hear them as I looked up the number to call to take lessons.”

Henderson knew a few notes. His mother, Dorothy, a schoolteacher, insisted he learn the piano as a boy in Iowa City. He read music on a white upright piano in their house and picked up the baritone horn in fifth grade.

He played football as a high school freshman before transitioning to the marching band.

While a student at the University of Illinois he played the baritone horn in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, when the Illini reached the Rose Bowl. He earned two engineering degrees but put down the horn upon graduating.

“There aren’t a whole lot of marching band opportunities available outside of college,” he said. “It’s just a muscle that atrophies, but it doesn’t go away.”

The pipes were his first musical endeavour since college. Practising proved therapeutic as the city started its recovery.

At the end of each workday, he closed his office door and fiddled with his practice chanter. In search of a venue where he would not be interrupted, he ventured into Prospect Park after nightfall, where he practised in Friends Cemetery, a Quaker burial ground.

Henderson endured what he called a “horribly slow” learning curve before playing for NYU’s pipe band.

He performed at the Beacon Theatre and Madison Square Garden, the Cathedral of St John the Divine and Yankee Stadium, marching down Fifth Avenue during the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade 14 times. Once, he performed at three venues in two boroughs across one hour.

The farthest he’s travelled was to Glasgow, where, in 2014, he finished in eighth place in Grade 4B at the World Pipe Band Championships. Three years later, he was named Saffron United’s pipe major. He reflected on the mettle tests a piper must pass along the way. During the coldest funeral he played, it was eight degrees outside. He wore insulated gloves until the hearse arrived.

“I then dropped them like a hockey fight,” he said. “Second time through ‘Amazing Grace’ your hands feel like broken glass. So cold. Really not fun.”

The first funeral he ever played was for a 13-month-old who died from leukaemia. The most recent was his mother’s, on February 21, a decade after his father, Bob, was laid to rest following their 51 years of marriage.

Bob always joked about his wife’s tardiness, telling her, “Dorothy, you’re going to be late for your own funeral.” Her service was scheduled to start at 9am. When John’s brother Jay arrived with her ashes at 8.59am, they waited four minutes to fulfil their father’s prophesy. Henderson stood in the back of St Mary’s Church and played her in with Amazing Grace. For the recessional, he performed Oft In The Stilly Night. The brothers wrapped their parents’ urns together with the blue shawl Dorothy wore to Bob’s funeral at their grave. Jay knelt and placed them side-by-side in the dirt.

“You become strangely comfortable with the customs,” John said.

Death surrounds him. His wife of nearly 25 years, Abby, works as a bereavement counsellor at Calvary Hospital. On weekends, they walk a few blocks to Green-Wood Cemetery for fresh air and greenery. At the height of the epidemic here, they noted more smoke releases from the crematorium stacks.

She is the reason he moved to New York. They met at a speech competition in high school in Iowa, and maintained a long-distance relationship with phone calls and letter writing before he joined her in Brooklyn from Texas, where he worked for Lockheed Martin. His first job in New York was a two-week temporary position at NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He answered phones for USD7.50 an hour.

Now they share signs of progress. When the city’s health department announced that it was lifting restrictions on visitors at hospitals, she called it “a good day, a really good day”.

She also noticed when the refrigerated truck that stored corpses in front of a funeral home by her hospital was no longer parked outside one morning.

They discussed efforts to reopen the city in the wake of being ravaged by the coronavirus and roiled by unrest related to police brutality protests.

“I don’t want people to die,” he said sternly.

“I don’t want healthcare workers to lose their minds,” she said.

She followed him to the corner as 7pm neared. He carried his pipes; she brought a purple cowbell. In front of the eatery, a chalkboard greeted all comers: