The list was long, the time horizon a decade plus but at long last our number was called. If you have patience, if you can stick to it, hang in there, wait, pay your yearly waiting list fee, then keep waiting you have to believe eventually you’ll get in.
South Beach Harbor is adjacent to major league baseball’s San Francisco Giants stadium─ current name on stadium is Oracle Stadium. Depending upon your personal preferences this could be either your heaven or your personal berthing hell.
Berthing our sailboat serves many masters. Most of all it gives us a place to stay when we come to the City. South Beach is now after a 14 year wait our very own San Francisco pied-à-terre. This mad about sailing family originally signed up during Barack Obama’s first year in office. Obviously, it must be counterintuitive to even think of owning a boat in the midst of a global financial crisis but that’s who we are, the well positioned survivors of Wall Street’s version of an economic Armageddon.
My dog Lacey was still alive when we signed up for the long wait, God bless that little dog’s tail, if the Vatican would consent, I’d sanctify her little canine soul─ so what the, the little dog’s loving soul was boundless, a kinder animal would be hard to come by. The two of us were still banging out 500 shows per year, a slip in South Beach would be rarely seen, perhaps photographs would have to suffice while I was on the road.
Sweet Seas arrived from Alameda into our possession in 2008, the single most expensive toy purchase of our lives. First, we berthed her at Pier 39 in San Francisco, this was always going to be temporary, soon after we moved her to Sausalito, better and enchanting but also inconvenient and sociologically offkey to the tune we hummed─ of course we loved Sausalito, but it’s also a tourist trap─ affluent plus-plus-plus only types are the only kind that can afford this exclusive town’s real estate, and sure we may be card carrying credit worthy’s but we’ve found the unstratified East Bay milieu more soothing to our world view.
I am East Bay to the bone, born in Oakland, more about that, just saying our Vice President was born among the glory that is the Left Coast’s version of Brooklyn. Berthing our boat in Emeryville was a deft stroke of insight, practicality, and deli-sandwich luck. I can spot a native East Bay born and raised male by haircut, slang and the beer they drink.
Life threw us a few screwballs. The wife was off to Australia for work, I was soon contracted for shows in Mexico. What caused us problems was we had purchased a home, it was too big, wasn’t long before the custom Joseph Esherick digs began to overtake our lives and demand too much of our tool time. Being tied to the home and chores wasn’t a good fit, saw the chance, sold the place, plan was to temporarily liveaboard in Emeryville─ one year turned into nine of the best years of our lives. This was my second stint living aboard, my wife’s first go at such a spartan life─ she loved everything about marina life─ birds and manta rays, sunrise and sunsets, the play of tides, possibilities tantalized, but for a few challenges whatever inconveniences we suffered were accepted as a worthy price to be tied so close to nature.
I was doing three months on and three months off in the Riviera Maya, Eileen was working remotely and joined me, then she took a gig in LA, that ended her being with me in Mexico, and it made my being away for 12 weeks too high a cost to pay to keep our marriage on track.
Somewhere in all this was the planning to sail to Avalon, to spend the summer bumming around harbor to harbor up and down the California coast. Our sailboat needed upgrading, that busied the days. Everything from the new and classier toilet to purchasing new sails, and not just new ordinary sails but high-tech space-age technology sails demanded my every attention.
By the summer of 2019 I was off for shows in Canada, then a romp down the coast to Los Angeles, this time not as skipper but as crew two-handed in September, then a four-handed romp to Cabo San Lucas with another couple in December. New Year’s Eve little did we appreciate that our celebration in Avalon would be our last taste of the before time’s.
Upgrading dock lines is a first chore. Brightwork needs attention, sanded yesterday, and put first new coat on today. I’ll put another nine coats on, of course sanding between each coat, gives me an excuse to keep an eye on the dock lines, inspecting the lines for chafe, for those that don’t know much about boating is preventing your boat from sinking or breaking loose and going on an unintended adventure, these are two of the more basic watches that a good mariner must stand and guard against.
Then there is the dance of meeting new sailors. They come in all shapes and sizes, all ranges of experience, each with their own possibilities and foibles, each with the infinitesimal chance that they may become new friends. Because South Beach Harbor in San Francisco is such a particular place, with such a specific zip code, there are fewer sailboats here preparing for extended cruising. Fishing, sailing, motor yachting, all for the day, sometimes overnight, this is what my eye tells me is here. Of course the intoxicated dreamer’s haunt this harbor, this is as nature and sailing intended seeing into what you can do with all those tomorrow’s to be. What can we do with the wind and a dream, when can we go, what will we see, how can this change us─
“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.”
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.