Room 2095 Krauss Natural Science Building. The sunlight pouring in through the window appears to be the only link between the laboratory and the outside world. While students play Frisbee and sunbathe in the Diag, these lab scientists hover over test tubes, beakers and microscopes. The lab is a kind of alternate universe, a place where individuals are so intent on their work that they can tune out the noise from their outside lives; a place where phrases like “interbacterial contemplation,” “binding revertants” and “paraplasmic protein” are part of the everyday vernacular.
At his lab station, Senior Research Associate Tom Goss pauses momentarily to explain his work. It is only 12:15 pm, but Goss has already been at the lab for nearly six hours. His blue eyes sparkle with pride as he points to the test tubes in front of him. “I’m studying the way DNA binds to protein,” he says, simplifying his words to make them comprehensible to a nonscientist. “I love my job here. I don’t mind getting here at 6:30 a.m. to help increase humans’ knowledge of the environment.”
Watching Goss in his white coat and rubber gloves, one would not know that this is same man students notice playing the harmonica under a tree near the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.
“I like to keep it separate,” he says, referring to his music. “It’s a form of stress release, when everything that’s work-related can take a back seat.”
Indeed, the Goss who can be found jamming near the Diag almost every afternoon seems to be an entirely different person from the Chicago-born biological chemist, who received his Ph.D. from the University’s Medical School.
This year, Goss celebrates his fifth fall as a street performer at the University, a passion that allows him to shut out briefly the demands of his job and his role as the father of two children, age 13 and 16. “Sometimes, I get a good groove, a good synergy, and it’s like an auditory orgasm,” he laughs.
Although he does not read music, Goss has played the harmonica as a form of relaxation for about 30 years. “I have about 200 tunes in my head. Most of them are show tunes that you would know just from being alive in this culture, like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘The Sound of Music,’ ” he explains. “I have also been inspired by harmonica players like James Cotton, Peter Madcat Ruth and John Coltrane. I’d like to play how they play.”
Goss, who describes himself as “artsy-fartsy,” said he used to enjoy painting as a form of creative expression, but loves the interaction that comes with playing a musical instrument. “I like when other musicians come and jam with me,” Goss says. “It’s usually guitar players, but I’ve accompanied the banjo, hand drums, and once, the trumpet.”
While many musicians and passers-by have welcomed Goss’s playing, others have greeted him with a less than warm response. Some have taunted him by sneering, spitting or throwing money intended to injure him, he said, yet he is determined to pursue his art form. “Why should this be frowned upon?” he asks, his voice rising. “If you’re not allowed to express your thoughts, what good is a college campus?”
Goss’s dedication is evident from his commitment to play, even during harsh Michigan winters. On one particular 16-degree day, he remembers fearing that his fingers would freeze. “That day, I stayed outside for about 40 minutes, when I probably should have stopped after 20,” he recalls, shrugging his shoulders. “Perhaps it’s a little dangerous.”
When asked what he hopes students will take away from his music, Goss responded that has an “evil plan to distract,” to “make people get a tune stuck in their heads that would divert them from their tests and projects.” In an environment where individuals “have a lot on their minds,” Goss tries to infuse his listeners with a sense of tranquility amid their hectic lives. Goss, however, realizes that he, too, must eventually return to reality, which for him is the world of 2095 Natural Science.
He is remarkably adaptable in his moving between the realm of science and realm of music. “It would be nice to play outside all day,” he admits, “but after two hours, I’m satisfied.” He stares outside at the students walking through the Diag. “It’s a different world out there; it’s a different mindset. In one, you’re actively thinking about what you’re doing.”
He flexes his fingers as if he is preparing to play. “The other,” he adds, “is instinctive, spontaneous.”