THE SOUND OF YELLOW (June 6/97)

He came to Kentville on Saturdays during summer and begged for coins at the base of the old brick post office on Aberdeen Street. Blind, grey-haired, raggedly dressed, he may have been crippled as well. Not once did I see him on his feet. He sat on the sidewalk caressing a battered piano accordion, wheezing out a tune on it whenever someone dropped a coin in his tin.

He wasn’t a particularly good player. I was learning the accordion at the time and had a reasonable idea of how it should be played. The old man fumbled with the keys and mangled his melodies. Occasionally I recognised a tune he played, but for the most part he just pumped the bellows and randomly fingered the bass buttons and keys.

Even though his music was off-key, I often stopped to listen to the blind man play. What attracted me was his patter. Between tunes and while playing he talked to himself, saying the strangest things. “Drop a nickel an’ I’ll play my green song,” he once said when he heard me approach. “Hear that (train) whistle? its sound is yellow,” he’d say. A truck would rattle by. “Red,” he’d mumble. “That’s red.” When he heard crows and seagulls he muttered about colours. Once when a sparrow trilled nearby he said, “that bird’s singin’ in blue.”

At first I thought the blind man had a few bricks missing. I finally decided he was making a game of associating sound with colours. Train whistles were yellow, seagull cries were blue and soon. The possibility that the old man suffered from a rare condition never occurred to me. Even later when a musician called Tom also described tunes in various colours, I never realised they had something in common.

I liked the old beggar, I thought Tom was making a game out of associating colours with music. I mentioned the beggar and Tom to friends, we had a few laughs and I forgot about them. Recently, I discovered that Tom and the beggar may have had a rare and mysterious disorder of the nervous system called synesthesia (which means literally feeling the senses together).

Even after reading a book* about a researcher who found evidence of synesthesia in medical papers hundreds of years old – and who examined and experimented with people with this disorder – I’m not sure what it’s all about. In a nutshell, people with synesthesia see colours or colour combinations and objects of various shapes in their mind’s eye when they hear sounds, taste or smell foods and touch objects. Like Tom and the beggar, some people with synesthesia have “coloured hearing.” It may seem weird, but it’s an actual physical experience involving the combining of several senses.

Since few people are born with Synesthesia (ten people in a million have the condition) it is highly unlikely you will meet someone with it. Meeting two as I did, beggar and Tom, was unusual.

Tom, a boyhood friend, has long since drifted elsewhere and the beggar has been dead for many years. I wish they were around today so they could tell me more about their synesthesia and especially about hearing colours. I suppose I would be frivolous if they were and I can imagine my questions. “What colour is the sound of a car horn?” “Is that cricket singing in blue or green?”

*(The Man Who Tasted Shapes, by Richard E. Cytowic, M.D.)

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