Category Archives: Performances

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Apache Junction Life

Fixer upper adobe

I get jumpy around tourist traps, get bent out of shape around strip malls, cookie-cutter style homes, or walking through the front gate at Disneyland. An awful gutting cuts right to bone of my inner resources. If one man wants something all shiny and slick, packed to gills with half of Toledo well that’s fine for that kind of person. I prefer my physical surroundings to be a bit more offbeat, I crave variety, want styles mashed together, that’s the proper way of arranging a place, a general sense of unruliness.  Berkeley comes to mind, Bisbee or Baker, Nevada.

The fidgetiness all starts out as a dull ache in my head, not enough pain to want to take aspirin but something is not right. In Arizona out near Apache Junction, AJ to those of us who love this last forlorn outpost for desert ratting, first thing to notice is that vehicles are mostly used up, paint is sun faded, tires are larger and rigs are parked off pavement in the dirt. Apache Junction isn’t against asphalt and concrete just hasn’t been able to afford as much as some of their so called competition.

Got Plenty of Yucca in place like AJ

Being averse to a tidy little town sometimes not only causes liquor drinking but even after a good happy hour at the nearest saloon I can still be thrown into a downward spiral. Don’t even ask me what miserable weather can do to the spirits.

There is an awful lot of junk advice offered to otherwise normal contrary type. Have a big family, shop at Costco, take vacations, get your meals at all you can eat buffets. There is no end to the guidance to be received whether you want any or don’t want any. None is useful, less than zero is ever acted on. If you know what you like and what you don’t like I’d say you’re ahead of the pack.

Finding yourself thriving in Apache Junction happens because the rotten no good dusty wayside out on the easternmost frontier in the Valley of the Sun is a place dedicated to being contrary to most all things that might be recognized as generally popular. If all of the known metropolitan population of a place is going one way the citizens of Apache Junction are inclined to want to go ahead and takeoff in the other direction.

Take for example my skipper friend Tom Varley. He has come down with the same perplexing revulsion for those same slick look alike places. Tom prefers  the backside of Santa Rosa Island. Being all alone is high on his list of a near ideal way to spend a few days. Squeezed onto a mooring ball in Avalon with a throng would cause him to grind his teeth. My skipper friend is partial to Charleston, Oregon. Located at the entrance to Coos Bay. This coastal hamlet is hard to find on account of the the simple fact it does not occur to a person to go hunting for this fog shrouded damp and dank coastal village. If a soul is stuck on the coast and can’t make it to Apache Junction, Arizona why that loner would do well to breakdown in Charleston, Oregon.

Once you find a spot set out to do most anything to make ends meet, sell groceries, pour coffee, do engine repair, fix flat tires, or sew a button on a shirt. You’ll know you belong because you fight twice as hard to make a life for yourself in these odd places because almost any other conforming type place eats at your guts. People who may not know what it is that is causing so much consternation in their lives end up seeking counseling where it is near impossible to determine what it is that is causing so much personal grief.

Making a life we want, where we want, doing what we can so that we may remain where it is that seems to suit us most can save a soul’s life from wholesome sobriety. There is every probability that by the time the shows just about over you just might have dodged half as many traffic jams as some of those so called get up and get with-it types. Making your life in a town full of likeminded eccentrics can near save a soul from being stuck in a desperate seemingly otherwise successful situation.Where I come from a gated community is just a hoity toity name for one of those fancy places they put folk who might not always conform to social convention enough to cut it out on that other side. If you have already purchased tickets for your vacation I’d urge you to reconsider. Another fancy slick upscale two weeks in some forlorn destination with a tanning salon could pretty much finish you off. Be careful.

Flip Phone paradise

Bring something to make coffee with…

From this sketchy brief dockside acquaintance Tom Varley and I cemented the kernel of friendship. A few unanswered text messages, one or two calls that went to voicemail is how keeping in contact looked. Still I would expect nothing less from this surfer-sailor armed with nothing more than a flip phone from the museum of antiquated technology. Email was a dreary chore. You want to get in touch you had best meet face to face.

Winch handle made by hippies in Alviso …

In September a year after our meeting in Morro Bay I sailed into Channel Island Harbor. I had asked around and got a lead on his boat’s whereabouts. I broke the cardinal rule and tried ringing him up. Breaking with tradition the Dude answered. Agreeing to meet I hiked from where I had docked around the marina from west to east to where his ketch was berthed.

I got lost. Gate to Varley Island transits sacred ground, a boatyard. We fell in where we had left off.

“How’s Happy?”

“Happy is aboard waiting…”

“How are things?”

“I’m finishing up a new installation. I’ll show you, man…”

Happy and I had to first have our moment. Tom waited. He had opened the closet door and had slid the freezer out. Gaining access to the top-loader was a snap.

 “We’re almost out of here.” Tom said. “Shauna finishes her work. Hurricane season is almost over. We sail for Mexico in November.”

Unrepentant untrainable dreamers discuss little and laughed a lot. Tom Varley and I were well matched in our talent to make fat yarns from slim thread.

Tom had an idea, flowing out of his being like a water from a hose. One future scenario was theoretically proposed. In this possibility there might be some merit to Eileen and I sailing with Tom and his partner Shauna from San Diego down the coast of Baja. A crew of four made for a more gracious passage. The crew might actually get some sleep. 

None of this would had been worth a winch handle had things not worked out. Tom and I were on the same page. There was good reason for the affinity. His vessel Spirit had his handiwork in evidence topside and below decks. New davits to hoist his dinghy happened to become the ideal location for his pair of solar panels. Even if he was dead set against having davits there was the simple matter of a woman’s comfort needing to be accommodated. All this bantering back and forth with a wink and nod while navigating the familiar contours of relationship is all part of the natural order of the world. A man knows what a man knows. Insisting upon having it your way puts at risk a partner’s happiness and for the sake of domestic bliss there is every reason to reconsider all options. Some male impulse type things are just not worth the hell that they may well bring upon an otherwise well regulated life.

Gen Set and Watermaker…

Any man can brag about how they always prevail, how their way is the one best way. This of course is peacock behavior, a big display of fanciful tailfeathers and barnyard strutting when of course the true texture of love is built of accommodation and sincere warmhearted compromise.

A man enjoys arousing another man’s imagination. Truth is that neither of us ever thought we could compromise about anything and but for the ravages of time and at our partners insistence to our stubborn lives came that long awaited fateful day. Like so many things in nature our willfulness had been loved out of us.

Imagining Sunrises

That’s where our conversation landed. From an afternoon aboard a boat named Spirit while petting Happy the Jack Russell terrier with my friend acquaintance Tom Valery plans were put in place and four would in the weeks just ahead agree to sail from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas.

See Sunsets

gulfstarring

Sailing south along the coast to Morro Bay I came upon a well fit out ketch tied up to a mooring ball. The mariner and his companion were whittling away the summer taking things one sunrise and sunset at a time. There is an abiding peace to be found tucked safe in harbor with a fresh breeze, fog and sun tugging at your day. Aboard lived a sailor and his dog.

By force of will he had found a way to get off the road to fame. This one time troubadour no longer had to load in for another one-night stand, setup and have to play another beer hall, he no longer had to hassle with all those three in the morning load outs. That music hall gigging for a paycheck was all part of some piece of his past, as far as his present, he aimed to partake in the cruising pleasures of an aimless sailing season. Harbor hopping would be an end in itself. Our sailor was one-part boyfriend, another piece faithful son and last the voluntary canine caretaker to the most chew toy sensitive Jack Russell terrier anywhere this side of Hood River.

The Evergreen State College graduate (all you need to know right there) had become a toolkit carrying boat mechanic. Day and night consisted of keeping his Gulfstar 50 in tiptop ready for offshore sailing shape. As for quirks of personality his are no more misguided than any other self styled post revolutionary “Speedy the Geoduck” type. Surfer-sailors punk rock loving recluses can come off to the casual observer as  Havana misfit gringo type’s. Our man on the mooring slipped his bare feet into flip flops, flashed a toothy grin, hit you with a blizzard of well worn jokes all the time not once giving off even one whiff of cigar smoke or revolution. His Jack Russell was named Happy, his boat was christened Spirit and his mother and father named their son Tom Varley.

HAPPY MAKING THE BEST OF THE DAY

I right away learned my sailing acquaintance focused his diet for the greater good of the earth and health of his soul. Getting down lower on the food chain benefits both blood pressure and girth. This drifter sailor isn’t opposed to drinking now and again so much as inclined to a more purposeful seldom on shore pace and never while at sea rhythm. Exercise should be invisible to the participant and is best done while distracted on a surfboard. 

WANT SOMETHING…

Conversation has a Will Rogers pace. Politics comes up short for this sailor. The struggle for a square and fair deal for the lunch bucket working stiff remain missing beneath the tree of awakening. Instead of solving nothing  he preferred to keep his opinion a private matter. Oxygen ought to be used to gather up the strength to bust a stubborn bolt free. To a surfer like Tom Varley there is no upside to chasing your own tail in philosophical circles. Surfing provides a useful purpose where idle Machiavellian speculation serves none. Love everyone up, be curious, ask questions, inquire about another man’s circumstances, buck that gent up, and keep on laughing is our skippers inclination. A generous concern for others comes natural to this shrewd outgoing Samaritan.

Cultivating a keen sense of the muse while keeping his equipment in good repair above and below decks is how the pursuit of a sailing life ought to be lived. Untold hells of every kind may well visit a neglected unserviced vital system aboard a boat. This isn’t just Tom Varley’s opinion this is karmic mechanical law.

WRENCHING THE DEMONS AND GREMLINS TO HELL AND GONE

Knowing something about how to fix a boat and how to be yourself are two sides of the same coin. If this Tom Varley were a fish you would be right to brag about having made a pretty good catch. Don’t get confused about a good man with a twist of rascal thrown in. He’s got plenty of opinions and can gripe too, but time has sanded off the rough edges.

If you were stuck in a kennel and Tom rescued you from some uncertain canine fate I think it fair to say you couldn’t do much better. Probably feed you dry food for your own good, wouldn’t keep you all pinned up, and when you barked all night at the moon I’m betting he’d smile, pat you on top your head and tell you he understands. Hell I bet you he’d take you for a walk off leash and let you sleep on top the bed. Coming back reincarnated as Tom Varley’s rescue dog could work out to be just the kind of lucky break a soul traveling impounded Jack Russell terrier named Happy could have ever hope for.

That Chute is Second Most Powerful Means of Propulsion Aboard Spirit

I like to believe that this is how the two of them settled things. Happy needed a keeper and Tom needed to be a Jack Russel shaman. I have made up my mind about this pairing. Tom and Happy I’m convinced both understand that it takes one to know one and boy did those two go out and find exactly what they have always been looking for.

Southbound Along Baja

Charting Passage South

Departed San Diego on November 19th at 0830 hours. We arrived in San Jose del Cabo on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula on December 1st at 1030 hours. We made stops in Ensenada, Turtle and Magdalena Bay before arriving at the southernmost tip of Baja in San Jose del Cabo.

The length of the entire trip was somewhere near 750 miles. We were offshore overnight on four of our legs. Conditions between Turtle Bay and Magdalena Bay were the least agreeable. Wind was blowing us down the coast more often than not. The leg between Turtle and Magdalena Bay was sailed against the wind. Swell was coming both north and south with steep surface chop beating at us from the west. This made for an uncomfortable ride. That is probably accurate but not the whole story. Miserable is more like the fact of the matter. A real gut buster. Rotten and no good come to mind as well. Could have done without that leg, but that isn’t how sailing works.

From the bow

The two most experienced sailors had been in such uncomfortable sea states before. We kept a close eye on our two other less experienced crew. After a long day sailing south and the boat heeled to port pounding and yawing fatigue and motion sickness began to set in. Fatigue, lethargy, and the inevitable mental confusion. Winds increased overnight to 30 knots with gusts higher. Seas built but it wasn’t their size so much as their chaotic mixing that did the most to make matters uncomfortable.

Nobody was frightened by the rugged day offshore so much as feeling a bit discouraged. Making our way south in late November off Baja is generally expected to be a downhill run. Having to bash our Gulfstar 50 south against the wind in such conditions is an unpleasant motion. We would have avoided the entire mess had weather forecasting large swells expected to make Turtle Bay a mess. We picked what we thought was the least uncomfortable choice. In short we were cornered and did what we had to do.

Most of our way south was much less fraught. Beyond Mag Bay we had a fine warm breeze to set our asymmetrical chute and spent most of the daylight hours driving our boat at 6 knots upon a docile sea. Crew were busy snoozing, making meals or on watch for sea turtles. Attire was shorts and sunscreen, sunglasses and a good hat to fend off a bright sun. The motion of the boat only somewhat later in that long day ever tested our crews mettle. More wind foreword of the middle of the boat, the beam, began to cause mild concern among the now veteran crew. Best of all the two that had taken it the hardest hit on the worst days were now all the wiser more seasoned and capable sailors. Most crew do get their sea legs over time.

We are enjoying shore leave here in San Jose del Cabo. Our boat is being scrubbed clean in preparation for her crossing to Puerto Vallarta. Two of us will fly home to San Francisco to leave the skipper and first mate to negotiate the shorter distances and jumps from harbor to harbor.

In our longer passages we were three hours on during a watch. One watch came every nine hours. Between watches crew either napped, was eating, reading or observing the natural world we were surrounded by. Only the darkest and earliest morning watches were manned by a sole member of the crew. We made sure to keep our least experienced crew scheduled to stand watch on the earlier time slots. Checking the boats progress on her course, using radar to spot any approaching boats, or the AIS to see if more distant ships were closing was most of what a person standing watch was responsible for. Otherwise a quick scan of the horizon and those standing watch had an easy time of their duty.

Being offshore is its own world. You are isolated. There are a thousand and one things changing over the course of a day. Still when the sails are drawing wind and the wake is singing off a speeding hull there is nothing quite so enrapturing and as peaceful a way to wander about this one world we have to care for. Sailing as ever is not just about where a boat takes you, but how a boat stirs a soul. We are transported to distant unexplored interior shores. We arrive at the next port knowing more about what we are made of. Wind power is revelatory in that sense. Sailing is about so much more than merely traveling somewhere.

Every Kind of Phenomena

San Benito Island Sunset

Sunset off the Isla San Benito Islands. This group of three sit fifty miles west of the Baja Coast. Toss overboard all your small selfish comforts. A swell and chop tossed sea filters the few from the many. Three hundred miles south of San Diego is no longer a mere dance of make believe images passing through the imagination. Off Baja is in the mind.

Crew and skipper gathered in Spirit’s cockpit for the show. Sketched out hanging in front of the blue above were an intermingling mix of clouds, some billowing where another section was rolling then another misting into a vast and vertical fog.

East of our southbound sailing ketch Isla Cedros stretched out by rugged mountains that crashed into the sea. The shoreline measures twenty miles north to south. Spirit was swaddled by islands, ocean and sky. The source of matter and energy was nearing that interval when our planet would turn on the sun and allow its lighted beams to burst out on fire

A sole mariner was nosing north and west. Further south out of sight but on our display was a pleasure craft underway moving at cruising speed toward our position.

Just for this one sunset we had been nonstop from Ensenada to Turtle Bay for more than 33 hours.

In this dusk a chorus of scarlets and golds interwove through wild blue yonder. Beyond the core bursting precious metal like bangles were distant feathering lavender smudged atmospherics. Each carnival of pinwheels, all the darting twinkling scabbards of luminous dusk appeared as its own most original once in a lifetime taxi time traveling speed of light to another and then another soul boggling transformation. Above the San Benitos Islands we found the symphonic fires played by an orchestra in the the great muse’s sky. We sopped up the incomprehensible stowing each taunting beam of delight into the hungry heart of our color seeking imaginations.

Richard Henry Dana’s classic aboard the vessel Spirit

South downwind into the night Spirit gathered the force. Whatever witness, whatever testimony the cosmos had bestowed upon us was more than enough. For some measure of our transitioning from daytime to night we were afforded a seat in the grandest of grandstands. What dusk offered initially was at its extinguished end taken to be ethereal tequila with a lick of salt and bite of lime. All the dancing phantoms, all the kindred forms of light were murmuring in our inner soul tides teasing us to treasure what moments before had been described by this crew to be some of the most precious light painted beatings of our hearts in our passage here on earth. Amen.

Slacker Dudes Sailing Baja

Tropical storm Raymond has arrived late this season. Raining here in Ensenada. We will hold here while seas settle down.

A safe passage isn’t just luck. You want to tip the odds of an uneventful sail in your favor? Show some patience and wait for the weather to settle down.

The first leg of our journey was a fine first taste. South to San Jose de Cabo we go. 800 nautical miles to the south and east down the Baja peninsula we head. For a brief while out on the first day there were whitecaps for a spell. Then dolphins came to play on our bows wake, crew was made merry by their sight. 

Entering Ensenada Spirit found her slip right off. We tied up, checked in with the harbormaster, took showers, made dinner and played backgammon. We were on our bunks to read soon after. 

From where we departed in San Diego we sailed east of the Coronados Islands. There are three. North, South and a third called Middle Ground. Charts indicate a sailing vessel may find use of the eastern leeward side of the islands to anchor.

Further south over the horizon Isla Todos Santos hosts pelagic birds, fishing boats and sailors headed north or south. Low and coming into view out of the mist, far off, will be on our starboard beam once we clear from Ensenada.

South of Ensenada it is 316 nautical miles to Turtle Bay. The Bay of San Quentin is more or less one hundred miles. We would make San Quentin in a day, Turtle Bay in two. Now set to sail Sunday we will make our next stop Turtle Bay.

The disintegrating remnants of Raymond continue to have us holding here in port. Fractional memory of geezers in these waters after much discussion agree none can recall an event of this kind at this time of year since forever. 

Our watermaker has malfunctioned. A solenoid (it is always an infernal solenoid) has given up after twenty years. Tomorrow an agent from Ensenada travels for business to San Diego and will return with the necessary German made replacement part. Our agent has a global entry pass making her trip less difficult. Our skipper has no such document and since there is no Rick’s here in Ensenada the agent will expedite getting the solenoid back to Ensenada.

Our Gulfstar 50 has a formidable engine room. There is also an electrical generator, inverter, watermaker, various types of water filtration, water pumps, water heaters and other assorted appliances. Our skipper spends his waking hours in the engine room. The Cummins turbo diesel is a worthy mechanics adversary. The King Kong sized alternator and the thick copper cables that transfer the electricity to the bank of batteries all look to be ready to light up Paris.  

We’ll cruise along at 7.5 knots with the motor spinning at 1700 RPM. Our Jeanneau, a much smaller boat, the diesel cruises at 2700 RPM. Still we are pushing a sailboat that weighs four times our boat and tips the scales at 41,000 lbs. That is a lot of guacamole.

Each boat comes with its own set of virtues and vices. For instance our smaller lighter sailboat, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36.2 has many fewer systems and is built to thrive in much different forces of wind and sea. 

Because I do not have a complex system of inverters and generators I have much less complicated electrical system to maintain. I have no solar panels and no solar power regulators to maintain. Even a smaller, less complex sailboat needs tending. There are no free lunches in pursuit of coastal cruising.

While sailing is done by sail we use our auxiliary power to help us get in and out of our berths. With the motor running we can make electricity. While running the motor we store extra into our battery bank. When cruising we’ll run our motor each day to top off our two house batteries.

I am due to install a device that will monitor how much energy I have remaining stored. Until this year I have spent my years running the boat by intuition. You don’t want to rush into these upgrades and even more important “if the dang thing ain’t broke don’t mess with it.” This advice works for boats, marriages and marine electronics. Stand alert to truth sailor!

By now our time in Ensenada has stretched out to a length of time that the street vendors know us by name. For reasons I think are self evident many sailboats arrive and never leave.

We wish we knew why but a boat is much like a woman to a man and their coming and going is an inexplicable mystery so confounding as to halt speculation dead in its wake. 

Slacker dudes will find their lives ruined if they make a mistake of judgement and imagine they’re is something compatible with their lifestyle and going to sea. A slacker type will find the discipline of chores and maintenance something like living with your mother-in-law.  

What you want in the mariner that has taken leave of their senses and possession of a sailboat is an insatiable appetite for puttering. You’ll want to fuss over things. If a thing isn’t broken perhaps you may try to fix it before it breaks. Rebuilding your equipment ahead of schedule is a kind of pocket protector form of behavior.

Many great sailor have traveled the globe while spending the entire voyage either in the engine room or hunched over a workbench trying to bring some piece of machinery back to serviceable life. 

This is the way it has been, the way it is and the way it will always be. We don’t go to sea with the boat we want or the boat we go to sea with the tools we have and as we sail we discover along the way that there remain tools we still need.

It’s in the Bag

Packing bags. Leaving on a jet plane. Last night was spent reading Steinbeck’s account of motoring south off Point Sur. The date was March 11, 1940. 

It is one thousand miles from Monterey, California to the southern tip of Baja. Durban to Cape Town measures a thousand miles. New York City to Key West is near the same. 

The French-Vietnamese sailor Bernard Motiessier departed Durban in 1954 ran into the teeth of a gale and for two weeks made no progress to his destination. Only a stubborn few have spent fourteen days off the coast of South Africa battling a stout blow to a draw. 

There is not a zero probability of encountering a gale while making our way south to Cabo, but the chances are slim. High wind could kick up. Given our boat’s displacement we will not likely be pressed too hard. Capability matters when you match a boat to a blow. 

Always have a backup plan. If the first plan becomes untenable try the second or third or fourth. Back in 1954 Moitessie’s could not approach the harbor because of the violent seas nearest shore. Better to stay in deep water than try and approach the coast.

Moitessie lost his most famous boat Joshua while in Cabo San Lucas when the anchorage was suddenly overtaken by unanticipated storm waves. Sketchy weather reports were ignored. That evening local conditions were docile. By nightfall the fleet of sailboats that had not departed were dragged onto the beach where pounding waves finished them off one by one.

The hard won wisdom we earn in our years of messing around on boats is all prequel. First sign of difficulty we will use our boat and judgement We’ll be ready. This is the pleasure of sailing.

To La Paz

Organizing our gear for our trip from San Diego to La Paz is near complete. Having spent ten weeks sailing the coast of California over the past two years makes preparations many times less complicated.

First off there is the matter of flashlights. Aiming a light into a darkened storage locker solves most every kind of first order of problem you can encounter. A second pair of readers, backup sunglasses are a must. 

One toothbrush is fine. One razor is optional. Sunscreen and moisturizers help. Chapstick is a necessity.   

My ragged, dogeared Penguin paperback 1981 reprinted edition of Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez will make the trip. Bernard Moitessier’s Sailing to the Reefs earns an E-ticket as does  Hiscock’s Around the World in Wanderer III. 

Two couples will be making the coastal passage. Each of us will stand a four hour watch every twelve hours. Standing watch will not be a burden.

 The gods would find sailing past Turtle Bay without visiting a boondoggle. Uncorking a protected anchorage is to have a taste of respite from the constant motion while at sea.

This is where will go. We will set sail from here. Here is all hopped up about troubled leadership in Washington. Preparations for Thanksgiving are in evidence. When will it rain and where will the next wildfire strike keeps California on a knife’s edge. 

All of these urgent concerns will soon be off our stern. Our passage will be the meat of the matter. Our time in La Paz will consist of a three days. 

Walking La Paz is on our bucket list. What we will want to understand about this part of Mexico we can learn by exploring on foot. 

Our passage measures somewhere near nine hundred miles. One week sailing add a handful of days at anchor, take the dinghy to shore to walk and explore. By my reckoning if the weather is fair we will celebrate Thanksgiving nestled in the water off La Paz. 

We arrive Saturday. We will provision Sunday and weather allowing will sail south for Ensenada


bedazzled Soul Sellers

Buzzards Bay

Perfection will have to wait while we tinker with this experiment in self-governance.

Amazing isn’t it that the Office of Legal Counsel located at our Department of Justice has so foolishly slipped the reigns of self restraint from the jaws of our chief executive. Any quick back of the envelope calculation by a student of human nature would have figured that might be too risky a temptation, that eventually that elected executive would test this ill conceived memorandum.

Then, get this. Over in the Senate we can’t seem to find twenty-one Republican Senators in spite of being sworn with hand on Bible to protect and preserve the constitution. Am I being too petty?

Half my life ago I was being prepped for surgery by a nurse who would while shaving my body hair off of the very private so called surgical field try to calm me down. “Now, you can just relax, because young man in case you didn’t know, in my line of work,” she slowed way down, her enunciation was impeccable, she said, “I have seen everything, and by everything, I mean everything…”

If the constitution is going to prevail, if we are a nation of laws and not just at the whim of men we’re going to need every Democrat, both Independents and twenty-one Republican Senator’s to vote to halt this madness before all is lost.

Sidewalk Show 1980

“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing 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 street pidgin for money. Conjuring up legal tender from out of the thin blue is the real magic. Motivating citizens to open their wallet pluck out a bill and voluntarily hand it over never ceases to be anything less than the biggest cardiopulmonary event this side of weeping at the sight of Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel . Busking 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. Playing the king’s fool in the public square 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, 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 pensive 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— a bustling midday Jefferson Street at this hour waited 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 westernmost 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.
End One of Ten… more to follow