Forest Hills resident Charles Schilke once dated a woman who forced him to watch Disney’s Pocahantas. The flick was forgettable, but Schilke couldn’t quite get “Just Around the Riverbend,” the movie’s flagship tune, out of his head.
When Schilke likes a tune, though, he doesn’t keep it to himself. He doesn’t hum it in the shower or play it over in his mind. He whistles it, and whistles it, and whistles it. It’s charming and anachronistic, unless you happen to live within earshot. Then it becomes something else.
Every day, Schilke walks from his house to the Van Ness Metro stop, a mile away. (He doesn’t own a car, and he hasn’t for years.) He works at a law firm in Northern Virginia and then reverses his course, riding the Metro back into D.C. in silence, immersed in the written word. He then takes that same route back home on foot, whistling every step of the way, leaving entire symphonies in his wake and musical suites strewn across the neighborhood, as his commanding tone finds every nook and cranny.
His repertoire ranges from show tunes to Bachmelodies that Schilke has carried around for decades. Some of his neighbors, however, don’t share his taste in repetoire or delivery.
The first time I heard Schilke, I was sitting in a parked car on a leafy street in Forest Hills. I had come in pursuit of the man whom locals dubbed “the whistler.” Legend had it that he could out-whistle a whippoorwill. Almost every day you could hear him, they said, his song rising through the cathedral of majestic, old-growth trees, occasionally even shaming the birds into envious silence.
The whistler’s fans said he had all but resuscitated an art form that has disappeared from everyday life. It lingers only in its basest functional modesto cheer a team, summon a hunting dog, or cat-call at a woman. But idle, leisurely whistlingwhistling for whistling’s sakehas all but died out. When it is heard, it is derided as an obnoxious tic of neurotic fools who cannot abide themselves. For many in our modern-day Massachusetts Bay Colony, whistling, like smoking and other vices, signals serious character flaws, if not mental instability. So not everyone in Forest Hills celebrated the whistler, and rumor had it that he had been hooted into silence.
But then came a report that the whistler had returned. “We were just leaving the house on our way to a dinner party, and suddenly there he was. I told my husband, ‘Listen, it’s the whistler coming down the street,’” said a neighbor, a longtime admirer of the whistler’s sidewalk concertos. “I was so pleased that he was still whistling, because I thought he had left us.”
I had parked near the bottom of a street that dropped down to the very edge of Rock Creek Park. I patiently waited for the whistler. A summer downpour roared through, leaving a breeze to drip-dry the canopy of foliage that protects Forest Hills from the rest of the District.
Then from over the ridge came the piercing strains of a distant whistle, headed my way. The melody darted like a sparrow amidst the ample estates, scampering through hill and dale. The song was far beyond the usual whistling fareit sure as hell wasn’t the theme to The Andy Griffith Show.
Down the sloping sidewalk approached the whistler. If I was expecting some rustic Wordsworthian wanderer, wooden pan pipes in hand, I was in for a rude awakening. He could have been any harried Washingtonian heading home after a long day at the office. He had on a smart dark suit and gripped a black umbrella, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Moving at a brisk clip, he walked in cadence with the puckering of his lips.
He was whistling Dvorùák’s New World Symphony, a favorite of his. I told him I could hear him coming.
“The whistling does carry,” he replied, “as the enemies of whistling will tell you.”
On one of his outings, a woman popped out from a side street, as if challenging Schilke to a duel, and sniped, “Do you know how intrusive that is?” One detractor enlisted her whole family to glare him down from the yard, and another has scolded him several times to clam up, classical music or no. The only male complainant was acting on orders from his wife, who had said she was tired of his racket. “Women seem more attuned or sensitive to these sorts of things,” he says. “Of course, a guy might be embarrassed to even say that he’s noticing such a thing.”
Schilke says he too wants neighborhood tranquility, but only up to a point. “In an expensive and on the whole quiet place with people who are relaxing from challenging jobs, I can see why they’d be concerned,” he says. “I live here for the peace and quiet, too. But on the other hand, you’re in an urban area, and there are a lot of other noises happening, so even if the whistling projects a bit, it seems like there are some worse things.”
Schilke says it would be absurd to confine his whistling to indoors. He’s not some compulsive type constantly whistling while he cooks and putters about. He doesn’t even whistle in the shower, and his turntable has remained broken for a couple of years. For him, music is strictly an outdoor activity, and he only practices his hobby on those 25-minute excursions that rejuvenate him, when he can veer from his classical repertoire to his version of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” whistling Duane Allman’s guitar solo to high heaven, as loud as his lungs and lips will let him. (The Who and Yes also figure prominently in his oeuvre.)
And Schilke says he’d have a tough time complying with a neighborhood gag order. “It’s as natural to me as walking,” he says. “When I’m walking, I sort of launch into this musical mode. It’s like a whole side of me that I don’t use on the job. It’s not a self-conscious thing at all. It’s kind of abstract and elusive at the same time. It clears my head, almost like a mental yoga, and it reminds me of walking to school as a young boy. It takes me back to a more musical part of my life than I’m living at the moment.”
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Schilke attended a stellar classical music program, playing clarinet in the high school orchestra. Though he was a decent instrumentalist, he had already found his real musical calling, at the age of four, when he stood at the foot of the Fontana Dam and whistled in awe.
The whistling whiz kid practiced the classics on his way to school. At Harvard University, he and several classmates formed a quartet, Mother’s Whistlers, that performed around campus. Everywhere he went, from Chicago to Beantown and beyond, his walking-and-whistling custom stayed him in good stead, sparking smiles and compliments and good cheer. “In Cambridge, there was a little boy down the street, and he called me ‘Whistling Man,’ so I called him ‘Talking Boy,’” he recalls fondly.
All that changed when Schilke moved to Washington and settled down in Forest Hills. It’s the only place where he’s ever caught grief for pursuing his hobby.
“There is a certain kind of melding into the environment,” he says of his hobby. “There is an anti-Walkman perspective. I’m not trying to imitate the birds, but when you’re making natural human musical noises out in a very natural place like Forest Hills, you’re kind of just another beast in the landscape.”
In the darkness, Schilke walks the quiet, empty streets of Forest Hills and whistles. He does excerpts from his favorites, including “Mars” and “Jupiter” from Holst’s Planets. Especially at night, the whistling achieves a stark purity. There’s something very touching, very human about the sound of a lone whistle hanging out there in the shadows like Spanish moss.
He’s on a roll now, doing his greatest hits, singles versions. He sails through an abbreviated take on Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. In the concert hall, this modern classic creaks with dissonance, a rejection of the sappy melodies churned out by the previous era’s romantic composers. Schilke’s rendering, though, sounds just like what it is: a walk in the park. It has none of the doom that makes the original an appropriate accompaniment to a gruesome Hitchcock scene. “I know the pieces, and I do sort of try to interpret them,” he says. “I am trying to schmaltz it up, and change it around, almost like a conductor would.”
Between pieces, a red Corvette roars by, blasting rap from its sleek body, and squeals around a corner toward Beach Drive. Noises like that one put the whistler’s racket in perspective. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” says a neighbor. “People live with airplanes flying above their houses. I’d rather have the whistler.”
As he continues his walk, Schilke belts out more classical warhorsesBrahms’s Symphony No. 4 and Piano Concerto No. 2. He claims a playlist of more than 50 classical and contemporary tunes, and he’s adding new ones all the time to keep things fresh. He says he’s met some whistlers who can do counterpointbasically, whistling two melodies simultaneouslybut he can’t pull it off.
“This is one of Bach’s most profound pieces,” says Schilke. He pauses, summoning the excerpt he has in mind, and launches into a recital of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. With this music as background, the scene resembles something primeval and mystical: The gargantuan trees still glisten from the evening rain, and the half-moon glows, and the whistler offers his song to the night. Even the neighborhood dogs let him have the mike on this one. Then he says his goodbye and whistles his way back home.CP