When not in use, the Bible-black grand piano that sits inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Duval Street is hidden by a dark protective cover that drapes even the keys from view.
The fitted cover is topped with a framed sign that asks visitors to refrain from playing the instrument unless first granted permission by a church leader. Rod Rodriguez, a Texan and longtime drifter who landed in Key West a couple years ago, is one of those who has permission to make the piano sing.
"Like a black stallion," Rodriguez called the Yamaha on a recent afternoon, as he gently uncovered the piano before opening the top to expose its belly of strings and hammers. "A granddaddy."
Rodolfo Paz Rodriguez, 49, born in Lubbock, Texas, the youngest of four children raised by a bricklayer father and a protective mother, treats the piano as if it were a fragile figurine.
After all, he said, it's a 30-year-old dream -- and prayer -- realized. He says he hasn't touched a piano in more than 20 years, and it wasn't for a lack of trying.
Rodriguez, who sleeps at the city's overnight homeless shelter on Stock Island, plays his own compositions on the piano inside St. Paul's for about an hour every day, starting at 2 p.m.
"I thank God every day for that little blue mat," he said, referring to the thin vinyl mattress handed to him nightly at the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS).
"I lived in at least 30 different cities looking for happiness. I couldn't find it. I got here broke on a Greyhound. I thought I'd have a good job, live on the beach and drive a moped."
Rodriguez said he has worked in restaurants off and on most of his life -- that harried industry is where his nickname comes from.
"It's easier for people to say, 'Rod,' I'd like more iced tea,'" he said.
But working a job now stresses him out so that he can't play his music the way he wants to, he said.
Without sheet music or formal training, Rodriguez performs a seamless set of pieces that he describes as "meditative," for an audience that changes daily, and includes tourists from across the globe. Admirers find it difficult to describe Rodriguez's music in words.
"His piano playing is unique," said Alex Symington, who met Rodriguez by happenstance and has visited St. Paul's to hear him.
"My wallet has hundreds of phone numbers from all over the world: Hungary, Germany, Japan, Switzerland," Rodriguez said.
They sit and listen, Rodriguez said, and often talk to him afterward. Many are moved to tears by the songs and tell him stories of sadness and grief.
"Crying is healing," Rodriguez said. "You're letting them release what they're keeping inside."
Some hand him cash, big denominations at times. Some suggest he travel, or at least record his work.
'Only in Key West'
Drifting through state after state for many years, Rodriguez said he couldn't find a piano anyone would let him play. He would ask at churches, but was always turned away. New Orleans, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Provo are among some of the cities he tried to call home.
"They all told me no," Rodriguez said, dressed in white down to a visor that makes him look like just another tourist. "I got no for 30 years, then I come to Key West. Key West is full of open-minded people. That's the beauty of it."
Rodriguez grew up in a home that had a piano. Meant for his sister to take lessons on, Rodriguez said he could begin to pick out chords from the moment he sat down at the keys, at age 6.
These days he plays only his own songs, which he credits to God.
"I've never taken lessons in my life," he said. "Since I don't know how to read music, they're all in my head."
It's his calling, he says, a gift from God that he is meant to share. To him the churches are cathedrals.
"Only in Key West can you have cathedrals with open doors during the daytime," he said. "That's why God brought me here."
Both St. Paul's and St. Peter's Episcopal Church allow Rodriguez to regularly play his music on a piano. St. Peter's is where he works on writing his songs, as it is quieter and off the beaten tourist path, he said.
Rodriguez said he walks two miles daily on the beach and has access to the weights and machines at a local gym, which he won't name during an interview. He also doesn't bring up a 2013 arrest he had in Key West for felony fraud, related to a pawn shop transaction, according to court records.
The arrest didn't bring any conviction; instead, Rodriguez took a plea deal that withheld adjudication. He was placed on probation.
"The church is a beacon for people seeking redemption," said the Rev. Larry Hooper, who knows of Rodriguez's record and homelessness. "If I make a mistake, I'll make that mistake on the side of grace."
Hooper says Rodriguez's talent is an offering in the classic sense.
"Like so many offerings, we put bread on the table for communion, it's blessed and broken and it's given back," Hooper said.
A musical debut
Rodriguez wants his music to reach people who are healing from physical or emotional pain. Those in hospice centers, he suggests, or people weathering chronic illness.
"I want to create my own music therapy," he said.
To get the word out about his music, Rodriguez has scheduled a free performance for 7:30 p.m. June 25, not at St. Paul's but at a second church that allows him piano time -- St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 800 Center St.
"What I want to do is bring donations to that church," Rodriguez said, adding that he would like to eventually make it a monthly event.
While he can gush about music, his faith in God, his love of living in Key West -- a place where he notes a grown man can ride a bicycle for transportation without fear of harassment, like in some big cities -- Rodriguez doesn't like talking about his living situation.
His past is the past, he seems to say as he answers biographical questions in short statements. He's been through addiction, he says, loneliness, poverty.
Those dark times make him unafraid of others' pain, though, and at St. Paul's his music has prompted people to share their stories with him.
Recently, a young woman sat in a St. Paul's pew as Rodriguez played. He said after three songs she approached him. She was grieving the deaths of both her mother and her best friend, and she had spent the days asking God for a sign.
"I was her sign," Rodriguez said. "It's for His glory. I'm going to play every day for the rest of my life."