All posts by Dana Smith

Author and Entertainer

Temple Gods silver state

Glimmer of Nevada

Luscious open empty miles on Nevada Highway 50 are planned. Busking buddy Sean Laughlin rules from the roost in Silver City. We go back to sidewalk show days. Sean’s pop was Bay Area icon radio broadcast personality Travis T Hip. Born and raised in Berkeley is its own geographical means of bending soul to place. I’ll twist a few yarns from his perch prior to more eastbound into the heart of nowhere.

Hot Spring Honeymoon, my third novel, a sexual farce takes place here. Long fiction uses uncountable hours of our imaginations bandwidth. Jerusalem crickets, pinyon pines and sagebrush become contemplative Great Basin life forms. Nonconformists are the entire Nevada population…. think imaginary prizefighters and hardrock miners. Easy if you try.

Best part of running east on Highway 50 is the caprice of starting and stopping. Yes, I will practice reciting new material. Delivery of a new line with nonchalant premeditated comic intent is a craft. You have to listen to your audience. Is there a reaction? Does the joke land or the following spontaneous line deployed hoping to save my belly laugh bacon save me from silence? Spontaneity is a gateway technique common to busking.  

Park a Dream Come True in Here

In the town of Ely I’ll juggle on a park lawn beneath cottonwoods. Unless the wind is howling the workout will be once each day as I cross to Ft. Collins.

Love, sex, booze and mustang are first order elements to living in Nevada. Perhaps you are married, maybe you twelve-step, given up on sex and have no affinity for horses there remains the great task of fitting your lack of conformity with what is regarded as sacrament here in the Silver State. If all else fails act cranky, but profess respect for lizards.

Hay growing, cattle ranching and gold mining thrive here. Natural resource extraction has not been easy on this delicate ecosystem. Adding to this is the sociologically bizarre gambling epithet called Las Vegas and this humanity that has gathered  pressurizing the demand for the groundwater here to the north. Remember that water running east from the Sierra’s or west from the Rocky Mountains comes to Nevada where it forms ponds and sinks into the ground. Millions of years of accumulation can be extracted by well pumps and piped away in the wink of an eye.

Road off into the Clouds

As far as nowhere goes I’d recommend more nowhere for its healing spiritual qualities. Cheek to jowl in California is bumper to bumper soul stifling. Preserving some sizable portion of our western states where we may travel for the sake of soul rebalancing is a prescription for our personal psychological health-care.

If humankind has been building temples for the gods it is likely the gods have built the Great Basin Desert for all of creation. Nevada she is the emptiness jewel mounted upon a crown of forlorns…

The Love

If I hadn’t gotten all drunk and stubborn  and insisted on putting a down payment on that double wide I fell in love with there would not be that much in my life to be ashamed of.

End of my show I use some musical tracks mixed down. I do my own editing. I’ve got plenty more mixing to do. Then, there is synchronizing the musical tracks with the volunteers who’ll be caught up in the show’s ending. None of this can be rehearsed. You just go out and try it on a crowd to see how it fits.

This musical closer is pure street theater. It belongs to the street, and is a form of group improvisation perhaps singularly suited to the here and now.

I find love a particularly salient theme, but you have to handle the conveyance of a loving theme with a certain cold disdain so as to not overshoot your audiences appetite for such intimate insights. Sneaking up on the powers of heart with a good laugh is close enough.

However it works in your life- in a relationship, not in a relationship, single, married, lifelong bachelor, married once but never again, never married but suddenly head over heels, these things are not choices, we are not in control, our heart sees the world through its own eyes and makes its own decisions. We are along for the ride.

Some busking types might say it is all laughs, that it’s how much you make in the hat, how big a crowd you can draw. My goal is to touch the four year old, the eighty-five year old and everyone in between with the notion that our loving one another is where everything begins and ends. Imagine having a show that works on that level every time? I’m such the romantic

When I work in Mexico there’s this guy that pushes a cart through the neighborhood selling bottled water. Well, it turns out he’s got a sister that sells hot water that a married man can never get out of.

Crumbs of cinnamon buns

“Well, I’m excited to be here and by excited I mean I want to do something, and by something I mean I want to give you the best 20 minutes of entertainment packed into 60 minutes that you or any audience has ever seen.”

Backstage before the show goes up our one man solo production team is bounding about fleet of foot and fogged of mind. As ever I am prepping for one more swig of the unquenchably intoxicating elixir of performance life.

This present decade proceeds at a more measured pace. The previous decade each year I made some 500 appearances before my audiences.  

There is a backward and forward command of your material when working so incessantly. In place of such a regime I am now deploying a more rambling-rollercoaster-improvised style. Like a pesky fly the improviser dashes from one near death like moment to the next dodging the swatting like silence while awaiting another sure laugh to land. The beloved house fly dodges web and window sill while dreaming of succulent crumbs of cinnamon buns. Authentic laughter is no less delicate and uncertain a fated final end.

While working with my show-dog Lacey our five thousand performances once developed was ‘error’-tight with minimal variation between any two performances. Improvisation demands that our work be fueled by cognitive super powers. We live and die by such gambits. Rare is the performer that can rise to the occasion 500 times each and every moment of every show across the timeline of a year. There must be such a talented soul buried out there in this sea of performing humanity.

Between June and July I’m figuring I will launch somewhere near one hundred shows. By the end of July the audiences and performances sent into mayhem, mirth and orbit will then return to earth. Instead of landing the shuttle in the Mojave it will be a Prius motoring southward over and around the Canadian Rockies, pondering life along the Grand Ronde River, lingering on the backside of The Sisters, Oregon and finally safely back in the hangar where we make our home in this sprawling sea of high priced real estate famously named California.

It’s one thing to be the world’s great lover and it is another thing entirely to be the world’s greatest lover’s lover.

Listening to their every word, laughing at their every joke and then it’s back into the bedroom.

All the cards, the flowers and chocolates… and then its back into the bedroom.

This isn’t just about love, this is about the championship of love, you hear that inner voice that says, “go on kid, you can do it, take one more for the team.”

Now you know that there is no way out other than going all the way in.

She’s perfect and you’re perfect. The whole thing is perfect even though you know there is no such thing as perfect and even that’s perfect.

polishing the tile

Mated Pair

June 10th I roll eastbound. The author of Hot Spring Honeymoon will thread his way from one geothermal wonderment to the next. Rehearsing lines, writing more material, finding a good shade tree where I can juggle will be part of each day. Making miles east will be a second duty. There is an art to being somewhere while you are trying to get to somewhere. They are one and the same. Road warriors know how to drink up every inch of the two lane highways.

Once I arrive in Ft. Collins, Colorado I’ll hustle down to Old Town and pitch up and throw a few shows down while I am there enjoying the guest services of my always much younger sister and brother in law.

Rules seem to be important to understand for those people not in the serendipitous business of sidewalk entertainment. The key to a successful career in busking is to never ask for permission and always ask for forgiveness. When ordered to shut down best to move along so as to get along. In a nutshell that’s the long and short to the busking game. Smile, appear to be reasonable, act compassionately toward officials fearful of a creative uprising breaking out upon the sidewalks of their free speech infused constitutionally guaranteed democracy. Street is the ultimate rule of law.

North from Ft Collins we’ll next take on Thermopolis, Wyoming and her astounding geothermally heated waters. After taming that frontier town we’ll circle north then west for Chico Hot Springs on the northernmost boundaries of Yellowstone before stopping in Helena, Montana where I’ll drop my wife so she may return to California for further explorations in all things to do with a major home remodeling project that at that date is scheduled for completion.

For pure comedy I’ll roll north and cross into Canada and streak north where I’ll be appearing at the 35th Edmonton International Street Performers Festival. I first appeared at this much heralded busking tsunami in 1987. All these decades later being invited to appear at the event dwarfs my wildest expectations. There is not a more lucky so and so. More to come

Cavalcade of Concrete

Wayback on the byways

Ramping up for getting out on the Beggar’s Banquet-Kindness of Strangers- Why Don’t You Do it In the Road North American International Busking Tour of 2019

This is the Ft Collins, Colorado, Edmonton, Alberta to Grand Prairie long hops and short stops itinerary.

This includes stopping at Miette Hot Spring, Thermopolis, Wyoming for soaking and two days in Kootenay’s at Nakusp Hot Spring. What would you expect from the author of Hot Spring Honeymoon.

A bit of sunscreen, chapstick and we’re set. See you out there on the Street of Dreams

Bop Infused Moonshot

“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing bad habits.”

Jefferson Street 1980

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 and quarters.

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 enterprise.

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.

Chicken on the head

“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 much fun.”

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 attention grabber.

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.”