WASHINGTON - The last drips of sunlight were filtering past the legs of pedestrians and into the basement when the pianist with eight fingers sauntered in.
"Well, look who it is!" someone yelled.
"Tio!" others exclaimed.
Tio Brown paraded into the room wearing ripped jeans and a white beret, an embellished walking stick in his good hand. He took his usual seat before the 1960s-era Everett upright piano. To his left was Carol Munday, a tall, soft-spoken woman known here as "Mount Pleasant's musical genius." To his right, Sam Post, a brown-haired "boy wonder" and classically trained pianist who opened for cellist Yo-Yo Ma at the Kennedy Center three years ago.
The trio has been making music together for over a year at this unlikeliest of piano bars, on the lower level of a Filipino restaurant in Washington. Most nights, the room is an overflow dining space. But on Wednesdays, it hosts open-piano night, attracting amateur and professional musicians from the neighborhood and beyond.
In a gentrifying city, in an era where social media and the breakdown of community structures have left both older and younger people increasingly isolated, the gatherings are a melodic exception. Some performers come to test new material; for others, this is the only audience they have known. Several have composed for bands and symphonies; others write music on scrap paper. Performances can include jazz, ragtime, folk, classical or - as happened when a group of visiting Fulbright scholars stumbled in - the Ukrainian national song.
On this Wednesday evening, Brown, a 65-year-old retired salesman, performed two pieces for the standing-room-only crowd. The chains on his wrists jangled as his hands traveled the keyboard.
Born with two fingers missing from his right hand, the District of Columbia native was turned away from piano classes as a child and taught himself how to play on a small Kimball keyboard. Now he composes his own pieces, often using more arpeggiation, which involves spreading out chords instead of playing them simultaneously.
As he reached for a high note, Munday closed her eyes and rocked from side to side. Post, curled up on a seat beside her, grinned.
Watching them from his usual spot behind the piano was Kevin Lambert, the boisterous 72-year-old who created the event. It was hard to believe, the retiree thought, that a year and a half ago, none of these musicians and regulars - the core members of what he calls his "pop-up family" - had known each other.
It started with the piano.
At the end of 2018, a computer programmer named Robert James came across a free piano on Craigslist. He picked it up and brought it to Purple Patch, where he had previously worked as office manager.
Walking down Mount Pleasant Street several weeks later, Lambert, who knew James and had heard about the piano, glimpsed it through the restaurant's basement window. He dropped a note at James's house, several blocks away.
"Call me," it read. "I have an idea for the piano."
Within a day, the men made their pitch to Purple Patch's owner, Patrice Cleary: An open-piano session from 7 to 10 p.m. every Wednesday. Pianists would play what they wanted, and - this was extremely important - there would be no amplifiers, no electric instruments, and no recorded music.
Born in Detroit, Lambert has spent his life around music. His father, a trumpet player, taught him to play the instrument. Lambert later wandered to San Francisco, where he learned to play percussion instruments from drummers at Aquatic Park, and then to Vienna, where he practiced with concert pianists. He arrived in the District in 1990 and plays in the Sunday afternoon drum circle at Meridian Hill Park. For several years now, he has mostly stopped performing at bars because he hates the piped-in music between sets.
"When you get in the middle of a groove that's going well, and people are enjoying it, when you're cooking like that, there are few greater feelings," he said about live music. "Nothing tops that."
At Purple Patch, when the piano stops, there is no substitute. All you hear are people talking, porcelain plates knocking against one other and drinks being shaken at the bar.
One crowded Wednesday, Marianna Ohe, 76, squeezed past a row of other guests to grab a little floor space. Someone was playing Elvis Presley - and the retired journalist needed to dance.
She said nights like this reminded her of sticky summer days during her childhood on Long Island. Her mother would play Charlie Chaplin's "Beautiful Wonderful Eyes" on the piano, and her siblings, cousins and neighbors would gather around to sing.
"When I come here, it's like I'm a kid again," Ohe said.
Elizabeth Moeller, a 48-year-old lawyer, wandered in that same night, still in a suit after meeting with clients nearby. She left two hours later, wide-eyed.
"Wasn't that a dream?" she said to other attendees. "It's like 'Alice in Wonderland' down here."
The crowds used to be smaller - in part, Lambert says, because advertising was limited to folded pamphlets that he stuffed into the pockets of his baggy shorts and distributed to shoppers at the grocery store.
Eventually, word spread. Post, the young professional pianist, received an email from an old friend who had seen Lambert's pamphlet. Stefan Sullivan, a 52-year-old specializing in honky tonk, found out "through the grapevine." Munday noticed a poster tacked up on the bulletin board at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library.
Her arrival in May of last year, organizers say, changed the weekly event.
When Munday first walked into the restaurant, Lambert remembered, he thought she might be looking for food. Glasses were tied around her neck with a shoelace, and a bedazzled denim ball cap shielded her face. Her fingernails were an inch long - a cardinal sin for any pianist.
"She doesn't look the part," Post said. "But then you hear her play."
Munday, 67, was born in the District and learned piano from her mother, starting at age 6. She specializes in jazz-infused pop songs, mostly from the 1970s - think Carole King, or Laura Nyro - but adds her own twists, unusual key changes that delight the professional musicians in the room.
"She uses chords in a way I've just never, ever seen," Lambert said. "She takes these dumbass songs and she gives them depth, color and beauty that the composers didn't even know they had."
Performing for a company of one
For decades, Munday composed and performed music only for herself. By her count, she has 90 original songs sitting untouched in her closet, because she has never been able to afford to pay a band to accompany her.
"That's me," she said one recent afternoon, riding the Metro bus to a free symphony concert at the Kennedy Center. "Undiscovered."
After studying French at Goucher College, Munday worked mostly at call centers and retail outlets. In 2005, she lost her job and moved back to her childhood home on Hobart Street NW. She tried performing, but gigs rarely came. For several years, she barely made enough to eat, racking up credit card debt and collecting pennies from parking meters.
Things are not so bad now. After she started performing at Purple Patch, Munday secured a regular gig playing at the Georgetown Piano Bar. The $150 she earns there each weekend, along with her monthly Social Security check, are enough for her to get by.
There are still, of course, luxuries she cannot afford. But she finds ways around that, she said on the bus, smiling conspiratorially. She was talking about the tickets.
Munday has attended hundreds of concerts, many from the second box on stage right of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall - the best seat in the house, she says. Some weeks, she scours newspapers in recycling bins to find listings for free concerts; other weeks, she lingers near the box office to see if anyone has a ticket to give away.
There was a time years ago, she added, giggling, when she would make her own ticket stubs, and slip into the concert hall to soak in Schubert's compositions, unnoticed.
"For the past 35 years, I have been focused, singularly, on becoming a cognoscente, on knowing everything possible about the classical arts," Munday said. "I want to have the classical arts in my head, and the music I actually perform in my soul."
Munday says she's spent a lifetime "pursuing perfection" in her own music. Now, for the first time, she has fans.
"It's nice to be in a room in which the audience is listening," she said late one Wednesday, after the crowd had cleared out. "This is a place where I can go where I'm liked. And my music, it's liked."
She was the last to perform that evening, summoned by Lambert after he, Brown and other regulars took their turns at the keys. As she improvised around the melody of the 1969 song "Put A Little Love In Your Heart," people left their tables to stand closer to the piano, singing along in an impromptu chorus conducted by Brown. Ohe swayed her hips to the music, her hands clasped in front of her. Even the newcomers joined in.
As the song approached its end, Brown stood tall on his tiptoes, then shimmied his way down, line by line, bringing all the voices to a whisper.
The room fell completely quiet. Then, as if on cue, it exploded into applause.
Brown looked at Munday, who looked at Lambert and then at Post. Underneath lights strung across water pipes, this family of musicians, fans and strangers clapped rapturously for one other, and for themselves.