Palisades Park sits, these days, behind a chain-link fence, courtesy of a pandemic that makes anyplace too tempting for the masses a potentially dangerous place.
With its palm trees, its walking paths, its stunning views of the Pacific, the Santa Monica park has been deserted for weeks.
But each night, a kilted bagpiper slips into a narrow nook in the fencing, turns toward the west, and, just as the sun appears to slip beneath the waves, breaks the silence with a melancholy melody: “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me.
The legato notes echo in the empty space.
Andrew McGregor, 40, has been serenading the park alone for about two months, since just before stay-at-home orders were issued and public life in California ground to a halt because of the novel coronavirus. He lives down the street, and he’s at the park every night.
McGregor walks fast from his apartment to the park, not stopping to talk with passersby because he wants to maintain social distance.
But it’s hard to miss him. He stands about 6 feet 10, and he’s dressed in a red-and-green plaid kilt and vest and knee-high woolen socks with a sgian-dubh, a small ceremonial dagger worn as part of traditional Scottish Highland dress, tucked inside. Because of the virus, he wears a blue, gold and white cloth face mask.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve known despair,” McGregor said. “Despair — to use a Southern California surfing analogy — you can ride the wave of it, or it can crush you. Sometimes, it’ll do both in the same day.”
He started playing on the bluffs near the park a few days before it was completely blocked off, hopping a small fence to reach a space that, he said, had a “majestic Scotland feel” — and where it was difficult for crowds to gather.
When the tall chain-link fence went up around the whole expanse, he found an open crevice near the bathrooms where he could squeeze in and quickly play, with the ocean and the closed, empty beaches visible just beyond the barrier.
It feels, he said, like an act of defiance to create something beautiful in the face of such sadness and uncertainty.
He chose “Amazing Grace” because the song, especially on the bagpipe, captures the emotion of this uncertain time.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.
“I know lots of people are suffering,” McGregor said, “and it’s a funerary song, but also a song of rejoicing.”
Every night, he said, there’s a magical moment.
The night a woman told him, through a face mask, that her aunt had just died overseas, and because she couldn’t travel to attend her funeral, his song had given her solace. The night a group of Santa Monica firefighters pulled in on a firetruck, asked for a performance, and flashed their lights in gratitude.
“There’s a strong likelihood that someone needs to hear this song, at sunset,” he said.
“You can endure a lot of trauma, but if you have trauma without hope, you have despair.”
On a recent night, McGregor bolted across traffic on Ocean Avenue and slipped into his playing space. His neighbor, Theresa Karaniko, followed and stood behind him, listening to him play for the first time.
“Don’t worry, I’m six feet away!” she said, wearing a face mask, her eyes smiling but her mouth not visible.
Just as the sun started to dip, he took a deep breath and started to play.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come. ’Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.
The final note hung in the air. Across the street, the apartment dwellers of Ocean Towers, clapped and cheered from their balconies.
McGregor stepped back out to the street, did a quick bow for them, and hustled home.