“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.”