Otis Stroup sits at the keyboard, a blond-haired Ray Charles, and jokes about being blind.
"I like to do my bit for the stereotype," jests Stroup, a blind pianist who plays nightly at the Marriott Hotel at BWI Airport. "You know, like Stevie Wonder . . .."
But the 40-year-old doesn't really buy stereotypes at all.
"I'm free to do what I want, like a short story. Anything is possible," says Stroup in a soft voice.
Anything, for the county native, means whatever he wants -- volunteering at nursing homes, traveling to Paris and Germany with his wife, Karen, composing and, always, playing.
Even when the piece is nothing more exciting than "New York, New York" -- an audience favorite for which he has "mild disdain" becauseit's so overused, he says -- Stroup enjoys the role of pianist.
He likes the feel of ivory keys under his slender fingers, likes the black on black of his tux reflected in the polished Wurlitzer.
Stroup can't see that reflection, but the limitation has never stopped him from enjoying anything there was to enjoy, he says.
"Sure, I have to memorize everything. But that makes it easier. And I never worry about forgetting my sheet music."
Jazz and popular tunes he picks up by ear, listening to recordings. For classical music, hereads Braille sheets.
Five nights a week, Stroup sits at the grand piano in the Marriott's pink and mauve lobby, opposite the bar. Ballads, jazz, old favorites and his own compositions fall from his fingers.
"Sometimes it's just background music, and nobody's listening," he says. "I don't like to bludgeon anyone into listening. I'd rather they go around tapping their toes, almost without realizing it."
The same low-key approach worked when he met his wife a decade ago at the information office at BWI, where both work. They met at a birthday party, and by the end of the evening, "we knew we were a couple,"Stroup says quietly.
Press for the rest of Stroup's story, and he'll talk about 12 years at the Maryland School for the Blind, where he took a few music lessons and happened to pick up some French.
He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in romance languages from Johns Hopkins University.
Stroup taught French and Spanish for two years in a Frederick County public high school before deciding it wasn't his vocation.
For several years he tried making his living solely by performing, but the hustling became too difficult. "You have to keep at it, every minute. Also, full-timejobs for piano players are drying up," he explains.
When a job opened in the airport information office, answering questions from callers who didn't speak English, he took it.
He still works there part time during the day. Evenings, he plays at the Marriott. Weekends, the Stroups perform old hymns and popular songs from the '20s and '30s at county nursing homes, him playing and her singing.
"It's very rewarding. The people may not relate tomany things, but music seems to touch them," says Karen.
The couple also put on benefits for local churches, such as a recent concert which helped thePasadena United Methodist Church buy a new organ. Other Sundays, they help with the music program at their own church, theCatholic Community Church in Relay.
"Blindness is not the sum of me," says the man who speaks four foreign languages, has produced a record and composes his own jazz music.
But playing the piano mightnearly be.
Some of his happiest moments have come while he plays,like the recent evening when a pianist from Boston staying at the hotel sat down and played some "four-hands" with him.They struck up a conversation and exchanged addresses.
In years of performing, Stroup's smallest admirer has been a boy who stacked two quarters on the piano.
"I like your playing. I want to leave you a tip -- I got 50 cents here," the child said.
An hour later the boy was back.
"Do you need both of them?" he queried. "I want to buy a candy bar."
Stroup finishes the story, chuckles, then turns back to the keyboard.
"Now here's an obscure oldie," he says, and his face gets that happy, faraway look. 'Moon 'n' Sand.' Listen to this. Just listen."