The Stories Behind a Million Doors

Everyone’s got one to tell, but we’re usually all so busy writing our own stories that there’s no time to listen to anyone else’s. Fact o’ life.

I used to ride to work in Chicago on the Metra train, what was then the Chicago Northwestern, now the Union Pacific NW line. As we zipped from Arlington Heights through Des Plaines, Park Ridge, Clybourn and a dozen other stations, I would watch the backs of houses and buildings go by. Windows shrouded in curtains or starkly reflecting the steely winter sky. Moving too fast to see any activity inside, if there were any to be seen. What goes on in there, I wondered. How many hearts beat behind that portal, and where are they bound?

Once in awhile, you get the chance to find out. My friend Sally asked if I would like to be introduced to her neighbor, the luthier.

“You mean he really makes guitars?” I said. “And lutes?”

“Oh, you should see all the things he does,” she said.

Bob Desmond in his workshop with a guitar in progress

Bob Desmond in his workshop with a guitar in progress

How could I refuse? I’m glad I didn’t. Bob Desmond is a Bostonian (closer to the seaside town of Scituate, actually) who spent many years shooting photographs for Walt Disney World, then working as a freelance photographer. His early training was in photography, but he almost went to music school, the famous Berklee School in Boston. Music never left him. When Disney was over, he began to apply his easy manner and inestimable patience to making guitars. A garage full of well-ordered tools and machinery serves as his workshop, in addition to an interior room where some more of the work is done. Because Bob works with Brazilian rosewood and other stunningly beautiful woods, both house and garage have to be humidity-controlled.

“They’re all different, these instruments,” he explains. “Just as you and I and anyone else are largely the same — kidneys, lungs, the things humans have — but each of us is a unique person. Same with guitars, and their sounds.” The nylon-string guitars Bob makes, favored for classical and flamenco use, emit a warm tone that is clear and pleasing, but without the sharper edge that steel-string guitars can produce.

As if that’s not enough, Bob and his friend Alain have built in Bob’s back yard a huge model railroad, on which robust toy cars as big as terriers glide along elevated tracks through miniature (but not too minuscule) towns and terrain. Many of the train cars are now stored in Bob’s home music studio, where he records whatever composition he might be working on.

A full life, to be sure — any one of the three activities would be enough. Bob takes them all in stride and realizes how fortunate he is. One more story behind one more door. What others might be out there?

© 2014 Adam Barr

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