not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing bad habits.”
Coffee and Keyboard
One of the grittiest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs— just pure hat and more hat shows. “Hat” is street pidgin for money. Conjuring up legal tender from out of the thin blue is the real magic. Motivating someone you have never seen before to open their wallet pluck out a bill and voluntarily hand it over never ceases to be anything less than the biggest pop you’ll ever know. It is a spine tingling page turner with the best ending you’ve ever experienced. A reliable pitch works from here to eternity any time, any day, all year long— she’s always there for you. A sweet pitch where you may go play king’s any day you want is life emancipating.
This lightning bolt street performing
epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come
to believe the world I wanted to live in was about running wild and being free.
Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone
catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There
is no getting off the road, There were no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this
obstacle strewn unpaid parking ticketed path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet
your last glimmer of hope on. An emergent busker is a go it alone type drowning
in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out— this is
your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. Faith in the kindness
of strangers is your North Star. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an
eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes
Stalling is what you do when the famous
ego induced death spiral—fear of rejection—has you cornered and on the
ropes. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long that
the present moment was now a fresh unused January 1980. Waking frightened with
a stomach tied in knots I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf. What I can remember was
a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak— Jefferson Street was empty— but for the
mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer
preparing to place his great expectations on the line.
Making it to the tippy top of the small
time sidewalk show I’d need to find a way of delivering my best razor sharp
fifteen minutes. Running too long was too much and too short added up to too
little. All in, from start to finale, was not one second more than one quarter
of one hour’s journey to glorious acclaim or crushing defeat.
I jiggered the running order, discarded
one routine added another. I invented jokes there and then, whipped up
wisecracks on the fly. This is throwing it down. Street performing is about
owning every inch of the self-claimed constitutionally guaranteed concrete
stage. This is the pedestrian’s coliseum. You are an entertainment gladiator.
Raspy voiced, drained— the grinding
first day exacted the last bead of sweat. Sidewalk shows are a monument to
repetition. Over and over the same routine altered on the whim and the will was
retried and refined. Improvement inched uphill— grudgingly.
In a scalding hot-heartbeat the first
weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated across the pavement like a
trumpeting bop infused Miles Davis scorched earth- note perfect- improvised
melodic soul-aching out of this world moon shot. Escape velocity sent this one
and only into busking orbit. I was a man on a mission.
Gut wrenching images of audiences
walking away before I could pass the hat tortured my lean confidence. Curious
youngsters begging parents wanted to stay to see what happened next.
Preschoolers recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin
busking veneer pleaded whining at full lung to see what further trials this odd
bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat
cop standing in scuffed shoe leather
ordered I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways half
curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced— smoking cigarettes. Assorted
stubborn misfits, the grizzled survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed
by their own scramble to make ends meet had not even a spare moment to fritter
away calculating the odds of my surviving. My peers didn’t need to know— they
knew. Those relationships would grow if I could make my sidewalk show stick.
Jefferson Street was wide open if you were foolish enough. Here was untamed
frontier, civilizations western most outpost, an emphatic continental end of the
line— the leading edge of some one of a kind infinitely-dubious vocational
First and foremost street theater is about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes four, four turns into eight; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Practitioner’s of this centuries old enterprise have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd— how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt to live another day— execution is the whole enchilada. Wily busker’s got this one word— survival— tattooed across their chest— there is no second chance, prosper or perish, show up, play big, be present for the only moment that counts. Get real you overzealous flame throwing heartbreaker’s or sit back down— life is short.
“I know what you’re
thinking. What a horrible way for a chicken to have to make a living. Well,
there are a lot of chickens working at Safeway and they’re not having half as
Word Count 2208…
The Chicken on the Head Routine
Uncle Ray’s playing two trumpets simultaneously was his tour
de force sidewalk show closer. Squeezing a drum between his knees, strumming a
guitar, tapping his drum with a brush, keeping time with a tambourine taped to
his boot, wearing a vintage leather aviators helmet, goggles, playing the same
four or five songs for the simple reason that the four or five he played were
the songs that paid. The dual trumpet bit was icing on the cake, a signature bit, always the
The two of us shared the same piece of sidewalk, same days
of the week and same hours of the day. As audiences go his people were my
people, and mine were his. Ray was a colleague. I knew what he knew. There was
mutual respect. Banging out three or four hours on Jefferson Street one more
day was to defy the odds.
When Uncle Ray wasn’t
working the pitch on Jefferson Street he was in a club. I never asked his age. Best
estimate he was a youthful fifty-something. Ray worked his spot, made his nut,
spent the rest of the week playing jazz around town in the clubs. The lanky
gentleman was a military veteran, served in Viet Nam. Bald, bearded, Ray as the
result of a misaligned jaw spoke with an unique palette induced effect. The
busking bugler was well loved, had a lady and a colorfully curtained Volkswagen
bus he used for winter stints in Baja. Ray and his lady-friend shared an
upscale apartment at the corner of Euclid and Masonic. This was a classy
upscale view pad. There was a balcony, parking, floor to ceiling windows. Uncle
Ray lived in style afforded to a man capable of his dual trumpet skills.
Word had come down that the San Francisco Police Department
had made a sweep of Fisherman’s Wharf. Street acts were arrested in mass. There
were no questions asked, no warning given. The police pulled up, handcuffed the
so called public nuisance, tossed the riff-raff into the paddy wagon and took
the perpetrators downtown. By chance Ray and I both had the day off. We’d missed all the fun.
Soon enough we’d got word that the orders for the sweep had
come from Central Precinct in North Beach. Most know Central Station by its
nickname: Keystone. Out on the street rumor was the Captain wanted it known that until further notice the
streets in his precinct were closed to busking. If anyone didn’t get the memo, someone
had a problem, thought this was some kind of misunderstand, then the Captain would
be more than happy to set the misinformed individual straight on who was actually
running the show.
Four of us go down to see the Captain. Took about two
seconds for the front-desk duty-officer to size up the four patsies disturbing
his peace. Annoyed, but then the Duty Officer was born annoyed, got off his
chair double clutched his scowl, then marched us down the hallway into the precinct Captain’s office.
Seated at his desk with his lieutenant standing at his side
the precinct Captain gave the appearance of being absolutely in charge of every
square block under his command.
Our Captain was
Italian, suave and groomed to code. Sizing us up wasn’t even tic-tac-toe, the
former beat cop had us pegged. We were maybe a troupe of Boy Scouts out on their
first field trip. None of the four of us had an prior’s mostly on account of
dumb luck. We had not heard gun shots, been in a fist fights or had any
experience trying to make nice while cuffing a man twice our size. Our precinct
Captain was concerned about pimps, muggers and burglars. Our coming to protest our
busking associates being arrested was quaint. All we were doing was wasting his
time, he wouldn’t say as much, but all there was for us to do was wait for the
Captain’s final decision to penetrate our
thick skulls. We were the piece of his official duties that fell under the
heading of community relations. This was the first time for us to try playing
the change the Captain’s mind game whereas the Captain hoped it would be his
last. The learning curve was steep. He had an edge. He was paid to wait.
Part of the Captain’s job was every now and then while
waiting for a group aggrieved citizens to see the light, well he’d have to take
a brief moment out of his busy schedule for the purpose of explaining the facts
of life in the event certain present individuals in his company might well still
be confused about who was actually in charge of the City’s sidewalks. He’d had
it much tougher. We were almost fun.
Our Captain had worked his way up the ranks. Starts out in
traffic, domestic violence, vagrancy that sort of thing. Later he’s in homicide,
sex crimes unit, tactical squad, undercover narcotics investigators—the
Captain is busy fighting crime and keeping the peace. The thing to know is that
it was an embarrassment for a San Francisco Police Officer to have to go to
Fisherman’s wharf and have to crack down on the street performers. Putting a tear
eyed street performer in the slammer put the jinx on a cops career. Police work
entailed fighting up to no good paroled felons. Sensitive street performers
weren’t even clowns.
The precinct Captain gestures with the wave of his hand, “Take
a seat.” He closes a file on his desk. “You want a glass of water?” None of us
are thirsty. “Coffee?”
The Captain pushes
his chair back. On the wall behind him are photographs of the many very
important people he has posed with over the course of his years of service. There
are pictures with Willie Brown, Herb Caen, Joe Alioto, Tony Bennett, Turk
Murphy and Vince Guaraldi. All the famous fat cats were mounted behind the
precinct Captain in neat black and white eight by tens.
Smiling with an ever so slight brooding undercurrent he attempts
to explain the situation. “My Lieutenant here, I had asked if he would take me
for a drive through Fisherman’s Wharf.” The Captains cadence had a slight lilt,
a bit of a rhythmic hop, skip and a jump. He continued, “Merchants had come to
us with concerns, they had some complaints about street performers. Merchants
said things were getting out of hand, that the police were going to have to do
what they have to do to take back control of our public thoroughfares.” Our
Captain smiling and seeming relaxed looked sympathetically toward his assembled
quorum. “I told my Lieutenant I wanted to see the situation for myself- with my
own eyes. I mean I like street performers—who doesn’t like street performers?
Everybody likes to see street performers. And so with an open mind my
Lieutenant and I, the two of us, we go for a drive in my precinct. Get it? My
precinct. I got the wharf, North Beach, Chinatown and a piece of the Financial
District under my watch. I’d rather be sitting on Telegraph Hill drinking
scotch and watching sunset, buy even a Captain can’t always get what he wants. You
see, this is a part of the City I have been put in charge of, it falls on me to
do what I have to do to protect and defend this part of town. Day and night,
three hundred and sixty five days of the year— what happens out there on my
streets is on me. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant nods his head affirmatively having not heard
truer words or a more coherent explanation of how the world works according to
the San Francisco Police Department.
I think one of us tried mustering the courage to get a word
in edgewise. The Captain raised his hand, “hold your horses,” he said, “wait just a
minute, you’ll get your turn.” The Captain would let us speak just as soon as
he has had time to complete his thought.
Our dapper Captain his shirt pressed, badge polished, possessed
a swarthy olive complexion that displayed patches of enthusiastic fits of red
as his circulation increased. Nobody could not notice pitch black hair and the touch
of grey at his temples. “It is a beautiful day. Fisherman’s Wharf is packed.
People visiting the City, pedestrians are trying to walk down the sidewalk.
Now, first thing I notice is this musician. He’s got a guitar, guitar case in
front of him, someone is going to break their neck tripping over the thing but
never mind our musician is playing music. I like music, my lieutenant likes
music— everybody loves music, who doesn’t love music?” He wasn’t asking a
question. “But, the musician is playing music in a doorway, and this is a
doorway to the entrance of a business, a business I might add that pays business
taxes for the pleasure of being engaged in commerce here in this great city.
Now, this musician he’s blocking the door and people cannot get in and cannot
get out of this establishment on account of the musician and his crowd blocking
the doorway because of his playing music. You get the picture? This is
something I do not like to see, even
though I love music as much as anyone, who doesn’t love music?” He plays cool
again and wants to make another point. “So, we continue driving down the
street. I’m a little upset, you’d be upset, but you’re not me, thank god for
that, so I tell my lieutenant that let’s continue, let’s continue to keep an
open mind, let’s go down the street and take a look at any further situations.
Me and my lieutenant, we want the big picture, we want to know what’s going on.
I mean the point I’m trying to make is that I have an open mind, maybe I do not
understand, maybe there might be a simple explanation for the circumstances of
the musician having to locate in a doorway. I don’t know. So far nobody has
been able to explain these things to me. Let’s keep going, let’s find out what
else there is to see. So, we drive a little further and we see a mime. OK? He
is miming. I ask the Lieutenant to stop so we may enjoy his show. I don’t know.
He thinks he’s funny, the mime is miming as I said and I guess, best anyone can
tell, his act is supposed to mock people walking by while he is standing still.
Then, when someone walks by he starts moving and he starts imitating people
that are trying to walk by, to me it was more like he was mocking the
pedestrians trying to pass by, he was making fun of the visitors that have come
to our city, in my opinion he is insulting these people. I’d go so far as to
say he was victimizing these innocent. He was not my idea of funny. Nothing
about his act appealed to me. All I can tell you is that I am disheartened by
what I see. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant rubber faced, also Italian frowns in
agreement with his precinct Captain.
“I ask my Lieutenant to go ahead, let’s keep going, let’s
see what else we can see. We drive a little further until I see this crowd of
pedestrians, and they are spilling out off the sidewalk onto the roadway, as
they cannot get around, their egress is completely impeded. There was an unsafe
situation right there before my very eyes. Someone could get hurt. Pedestrians
belong on sidewalks not spilling out on the street. I ask the Lieutenant to stop.
We are discussing the unsafe situation we are witnessing. I don’t even know
what this street performer is even supposed to be doing. This entertainer he’s
saying something to the crowd. We cannot make out what he has on his mind, it
is impossible for us to see there are so many people between us and this street
performer.” The Captain’s voice rises. “Then, next thing I know this street
performer, he is up in the air balancing on some kind of gizmo he lights up
some torches, we got an open fire on my sidewalks, we got a violation right there,
and then this street performer I don’t know where it even came from but he puts
a live chicken on top of his head and then so help me God this completely out
of control individual starts fire juggling for the crowd.”
The Captain looking down mindlessly thumbing the file on his desk lost in thought. It was a moment before he could find the words. “One thing I will never allow is for anyone to come into my neighborhood and think for one second they can get away with lighting three fire torches and then juggle those torches while balancing a chicken on his head.”
“My flight up to San Francisco was a little bumpy, but the water
landing was very smooth. That was a real professional pilot flying that plane…”
Work pulled my low-budget quest for entertainment immortality as far as ten degrees latitude north of San Francisco. After playing a noontime date I made a turn and put some south backtracking down the interstate. After a rough and tumble forgettable “nooner” at South Seattle Community College it was all I could do to keep my head above water. My self-confidence was in tatters. After threading my way south on Interstate 5 in heavy commerce laden traffic I veered off to the east taking a twisting road paralleling the Cowlitz River. I was back out on the road where a down in the self-esteem department showman could use road miles to regain his footing.
Mount St. Helens had been rumbling— an active volcano might be something to see. Rain was predicted as ever to continue without letup. As the crow flies I was twelve miles north of a mountain sized time bomb you would never know was even there.
Highway 12 would take me over the Cascades to Yakima. My next dates were in Cheney, Pullman and Moscow. On the eastern slope rain was forecast to ease up. Like that clouds dissipated— sunshine cheered the weary soloist. There was hope after all.
Tracks of my Years
I traveled through brush-steppe country crossing the Columbia River at the Vernita Bridge. Here of all things in a state famous for its lumber was a treeless landscape. Driving east irrigation pivots dotted the rolling barrens. The town of Othello was allotted less physical endearment than most other remote farm communities. Town folk were more likely here because they were born here. Home— I have come to believe is karmic. Pilgrim showmen are taught about the peril of permanent residency in their first thousand outbound miles.
I set up out on the lawn for a “nooner” in front of the
student union building at Eastern Washington State College. I had drawn an
audience of three hundred, a sizable potentially rollicking horde for a no-name
small-time traveling juggler with not much more than a performing dog and dozen
goldfish. The show was designed to catch, build and hold a crowd of
undergraduates. Then there were laughs. Applause points ranged to respectable—
At Evergreen State in Olympia my noontime show had been not as big but turned out to be more energetic. I am 29 years old. My sixty minutes remained a work-in-progress. After most of a decade of trying to figure this thing out I had to face up to the fact there remained much to be done.
At the end the show in Cheney a friend of the “circus”
waving to me during my one hour set rushed forward at the end thrilled by my chance
appearance at her school. Two fated talker’s is what joined up—a couple of
ear chewers. I’d first come to know my relocated friend from dates I played in
Fresno while out on my first national tour. In 1974 I was then a traveling
performer with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus. Her home
had been a stopover where her parents three-ring sized hospitality was teased
as the ultimate soft spot on an otherwise austere list of one day stands. Augie,
her father, by unanimous consent had long been enshrined the maker of the
world’s greatest pancakes. Each hotcake was ‘from scratch made batter’— an example and temple to the high griddle arts. With outsized pride Augie’s
daughter could barely contain her excitement waiting for the show to be over.
After she would commenced to behave exactly as her family had trained her to.
Having grown up around sawdust, tent poles and canvas she had literally been
reared by parents that taught there was virtue in helping to care for the world’s
smallest circus. Not lending a hand to strike the rigging and loading out would
be unforgivable. Familiar generosity silenced
my pangs of isolation. Here was an example of how distance amplifies
companionship. A traveling one man entertainer, go for broke type, was a
particular kind of comic telegram and messenger in this era. Showmen arrive to
far off corners carrying eyewitness insights into the lives of other people and
remote hard to get to places. My Fresno friend demanded we depart immediately
and on her dime for the nearby pizza parlor where we would burn the building
down by force of fever pitched family informed comradery.
A week and half earlier in Olympia I had met a baker. In
this instance I’d stayed up all night making bread with a sleep deprived crew
of longhaired bandana wearing misfits. Helping at the bakery created a sense of
my belonging to something all Cascade, Olympic peninsula and Northwest. I
wasn’t simply passing through, I was a welcomed part of the vital enterprise of
making this a better world by preparing fresh baked bread here on the southern
tip of the Puget Sound.
Weeks before in Eugene I’d fallen into a clever back and
forth with a blue eyed reddish blonde ruddy cheeked girl-woman who had recently
returned by sailboat with her family after an eight year circumnavigation.
There were practical concerns expressed whether she would manage to be happy
living in one place now or ever. Fending off the peril of maturity in honor of her free spirit she’d of
liked to have dropped everything— joined up and taken off on tour with this
jury rigged traveling enterprise. A narrow bunk didn’t worry her, she had put
up with less. Touring would have been an easy and more familiar path. Going
harbor to harbor, town to town could be an appealing form of land-yachting.
Wanting to drop everything and run off on impulse with a kind of a sailor you
didn’t even know the first thing about was not an uncommon desire.
Local actors from the theater program at Centralia Community College held a post- performance gathering in my honor. Together we danced, drank wine and exchanged tall tales about the fated struggles stand-ins, bit players and movie stars confront on their road to fame, gossip and paparazzi ruin.
Western Rangeland Touring
I had been out on the road six weeks. The hour long set had been much changed by the hundreds of sidewalk shows in San Francisco. New and better material was the result. Next goal on my infinite to-do-never-finished list was putting my best thirty minutes together. Whether it was sixty minutes, thirty or fifteen each show’s length was its own puzzle demanding its own particular answers. A showman among many pieces of hard earned wisdom becomes with more first hand stage experience a living breathing compendium of human nature. Being funny is one skill. Having the talent to disguise the lapse of time another. Stage time translates into a deeper seeing into the reins of our common human bonds. More time hustling on the sidewalk back on the streets of San Francisco was indelibly inked into my calendar. Instincts told me I would be all the wiser for doing more shows out there on that hardest of tarmac hard spots.
Mount St. Helens continued making news. US Geological Survey had deployed instruments to measure the mountains increasing bulge. Uncertainty prevailed. The volcano might not erupt at all. Then again there was no predicting how big a volcanic event there could be if this mountain let loose. A National Public Radio station from Spokane reported on the unstable volcano. I was three hundred miles east standing at 2352 feet above sea level, one-thousand miles from San Francisco. I’d traveled north and east as far as this up and coming showman would go. I had been holding up out here in the rough and tumble, but still there I stood between the places I had been and the places I was going. I gave in and amused my wanting off the road and allowed my mind the pleasure of anticipating my return.
“This is a family
show. After my show you’ll all want to go home and start a family.”
North Tour 1980
After four months playing the sidewalk in San Francisco I
pulled up stakes and trucked to the Northwest. Instead of fifteen minute shows
I’d present my one hour set. Instead of a sidewalk I’d play college campuses.
Getting amped up for twenty-five sidewalk shows squeezed into three days was a
gut busting iron man competition. I needed a change-up to my routine. The hope
was I’d come back from the tour recharged. Sidewalk shows are always uphill at
full speed from start to end. Contracted college dates dialed the intensity of
a show back. Instead of sprinting I was long distance running.
I traveled solo with my performing dog, chicken, cat and
dozen goldfish. I had a sleeping bunk, cooking gear, suitcase, shave kit,
typewriter, prop case and costume. Under
my front seat were a set of chains for my tires in the event I encountered snow
or ice. Cooking was done off my tailgate. The price of gas was my mortal enemy.
I was hopping from date to date. My California plates were a
tipoff. Provincial types reckoned I must be an infiltrator. Alternately
conscious sympathizers saw me as an out of bounds homeboy on the prowl, they
recognized the desperado— I was pegged a soul searcher. Six hours from
Stockton and I was in Ashland, Oregon, six hours more and I’m asleep in my bunk
At the end of any day I might have not spoken to another soul.
Touring can be as simple as sixteen hours of bittersweet lonely silence fueled
doubt. I encamped along lakes and rivers. I’d stock up on food, get out of town—
sit still. Weekday’s out thirty miles from any population center was all wind
whistling through the pine needles. I made small talk with local ranchers.
Sometimes a highway crew was repairing a nearby roadway. Most of the week after
a show I’d be camped alone.
This road dog veteran polished the skillful means of being
comfortable in my own skin. I had a good bed in my truck and screened windows.
I’d wash my pots and pans, brush my teeth. The dog, cat, chicken and goldfish
rested easier once I settled in for the night. I’d try to finish my chores
before sundown then curl up on my bunk with a book.
Once on the road the pace of life will work out best by
keeping your wits about you. Getting into the rhythm takes time while you
adjust. The idea is to not fixate on the destination. You will want to
appreciate all the in-between moments, make each leg of the tour matter, the
journey itself is the spacious location, the string of dates becomes a feature
length wide screen modern day sprawling epic. It was alternately either all Clint
Eastwood as Bronco Billy or Charlie Chaplin out there. Waking up, making cowboy
coffee, caring for the animals, getting the truck started, leaving plenty of
time to get to the venue for the show, this is how to bring composure to each
new crack of dawn. You can’t let emptiness rattle your nerves.
I sought out insider knowledge from incidental conversations
about the places I was passing through. If I needed a nap I’d pull off the
highway slow roll down a dirt road park beneath a shade tree climb onto my bunk
and fall asleep relishing the stillness. You want to take the time and make the
effort to fill the five gallon jug with spring fed drinking water. I did all my
own oil changes, kept my brakes adjusted, greased all the zerk fittings. The
idea was to keep ahead of trouble, be sure to fix a problem before you had a
I’d play a date and after go to the local bank where the
check was drawn. When my wallet was flush I’d send the extra checks by mail to
my bank back in California. I’d pull off and use a pay phone to get in contact
with my answering service operator. I’d practice juggling and hand-balancing in
parks. Product development required staying in shape and coming up with new
tricks. I wrote music and lyrics for the ukulele. I tried teaching my dog Sunshine
a thing or two.
I corresponded with clients. Solicitous letters were
composed on my Smith-Corona manual typewriter. I kept a calendar with potential
appearances marked in pencil. Once a client confirmed I inked the date in with
expectation and permanence. In the event a booking was contracted I queried the
surrounding communities for more work. Festivals, fairs, schools, libraries,
and park and recreation departments were all targets of my mailing campaign.
Once I had finished one show I turned my attention to finding an engagement for
tomorrow. A sober eyed fiduciary responsibility to keeping the theatrical
enterprise afloat filled my day and night.
This past winter before heading north I went bar hopping and
whiskey drinking. I befriended members of the Charlie Musselwhite Band at a
down on your suburban luck saloon in Sunnyvale, California. Charlie’s players
were moving north with spring. I’d pulled into Eugene and so was the band.
Tacoma same thing. Between sets I’d drink beer, shoot pool and small talk with
Charlie’s sidemen. My juggling business amused the vagabond musicians. They
were envious of my running a solo entertainment enterprise. Unaware of a
variety entertainer’s austere road life they instead traveled by automobiles
and stayed in what I imagined were luxurious economy motels. Charlie seemed
older than the hills even if he wasn’t. Musselwhite and his band all drank
hard. The Chicago trained harmonica bluesman was punching out one-night stands
trying to keep food on the table and a roof over his head. Charlie’s band was
rarely asleep before dawn. You could be a blues player, do all that drinking,
smoking cigarettes, skirt chasing-tom catting but that wore on a body and you’re bound to wear out sooner than
later. Charlie eventually stopped his liquor drinking. Sobriety is likely a lot
to do with why he’s lived such a long life.
Charlie’s guitar player had quite the way with the ladies. The handsome picker had two or four aching to be his one and only. He’d come and gone through Tacoma enough to have made some sort of lasting memories with his throng of heartthrobs. He’d tried taking one on the road. Hard as he tried the guitar player couldn’t make that kind of arrangement stick. Music making seems to be more soulful when powered by heartbreak, two-timing and everlasting unfaithfulness. Charlie’s band was versed far more completely in all of these matters than some upstart one man variety show act. Even a better than fair looking comedy juggler was no match when going up against a quartet of rhythm and blues infused Don Juan’s.
This is opening rewritten fragment to longer piece… about 800 words of 9000.
“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing my bad habits.”
Jefferson Street 1980
One of the grittiest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. Hat is shorthand— by hat I mean stone cold cash you can count out and hold in your hand after a performance. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come to believe life was about running wild and being free. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there were no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a dreamer drowning in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.
I had been stalling. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long it was now a fresh and unused January of 1980. I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf, it was a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak. Streets were empty but for the mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer preparing to place his fateful future on the line.
Making it to the tippy top of the small time sidewalk show I’d need to find a way of delivering my best razor sharp fifteen minutes. Running too long was too much and too short added up to too little. All in from start to finale was not one second more than one quarter of one hour’s journey to glorious acclaim or crushing defeat. I jiggered the running order, discarded one routine added another. I invented jokes there and then, whipped up wisecracks on the fly. This is throwing it down. Street performing is about owning every inch of the self-claimed constitutionally guaranteed concrete stage. This is the pedestrian’s coliseum. You are an entertainment gladiator.
Raspy voiced, drained emotionally, the unrelenting grinding first day exacted its toll. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered on the whim and the will was retried and refined. Improvement inched ahead uphill— grudgingly.
A More Present Era Likeness
In a scalding hot heartbeat the first weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated in my head like a broken record. Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat tortured my lean confidence. Curious youngsters begging parents wanted to stay to see what happened next. Children recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin busking veneer and pleaded to stay to see what further trials this odd bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. Standing in scuffed shoe leather a beat cop ordered that I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways half curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced smoking cigarettes. Assorted stubborn misfits, the grizzled survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own scramble to make ends meet had not even a spare moment to fritter away calculating the odds of my surviving. My peers didn’t need to know, they knew. Those relationships would grow if I could make my sidewalk show stick. Jefferson Street was wide open if you were foolish enough. Here was untamed frontier, civilizations western most outpost, an emphatic continental end of the line— the leading edge of some one of a kind dubious vocational enterprise.
Street theater is first and foremost about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes four, four turns into eight; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Practitioner’s of this centuries old enterprise have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd— how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt to live another day, execution is the whole enchilada. Wily buskers got this one word— survival— tattooed across their chest— there is no second chance, prosper or perish, show up, play big, be present for the only moment that counts. Get real you overzealous flame throwing heartbreaker or sit back down— life is short.
Tomorrow would be all tap dancing, feather boas and spangled showgirls
Eight weeks was in my rearview mirror. Homeward bound I ate up the last miles of two lane blacktop. Topping off my emptiness pangs, I soaked up the sweeping horizons of blue sky, white clouds, green sage and red soils. Empty high desert sated my last remaining solo thirst to be out in the wide open western rangelands. I broached my worries to ghosts of past touring partners. Max Frobe, Nick Weber and Steve Aveson I invited them into the silence to be here and whisper to my spirit. I praised the hands of all the good souls that had helped me find my way. In another half day of chasing this painted white striped line I would be folded back into my home-ground. My inner affairs were confronted with greater clarity out on the open range. I was unbridled and free to run with all the other wild horses. I could feel the harmonizing link to my wilderness. I was passing through landscapes lending library. I had fended off the demon fear of failure. I had filled my days with purpose. My pickup truck engine hummed. A much sought after next piece of my life puzzle was on the other side of the windshield. Today was good. Tomorrow would be all tap dancing, feather boas and spangled showgirls.
One of the hardest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. I’m talking about hard cold cash you can count in a hat after a performance. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany struck my not entirely completed journey to adulthood fresh and wild. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there are no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a tangled soul drowning in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.