Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Park It Here

I packed a banana into a guitar case and headed for Manhattan, a mere 40 miles but a seeming continent away from the suburbs.

After riding the Metro-North train in from Westchester to Grand Central Station and taking the #1 subway to the Christopher Street stop, I intended to walk directly to Washington Square Park in the West Village rather than exploring any nearby avenues or streets for fear I would lose my way.

But there was a commotion halfway down Christopher Street and I headed in its direction wearing a squint in an attempt to look hard and dangerous, as though I hadn’t just come from my mother and father’s big house on top of a hill in my pleasant, comfortable town of 7,000.

A tall man was laying down three cards on top of an upside-down 5-gallon joint compound container perched on a large empty box. The cards were beat-up and the man barked “Red card’s a winner, red card’s a winner!” A fellow from the crowd correctly guessed which card was red, and I saw the tall man hand over $20, just like that. He laid down another three cards, and again, a man from the crowd guessed which one was red and collected money.

I felt sorry for the barker; he had no shirt and didn’t look as though he could afford to lose his pants, too. But he’d been beaten fair and square, and since a game was offered, I decided to play. The third time the barker shuffled and laid down cards, I spied the red one in the middle, thought quickly, and hesitated.

A low voice next to my left ear startled me. “It’s in the middle,” a battered, elderly man whispered.

That was enough to convince me, and I laid down my entire bankroll---a 20 dollar bill---to bet. In a split second, the barker turned over a black card and the money that was supposed to last me the entire weekend was gone, and in another moment the entire game was broken up, crowd dispersed and the mob around the corner faster than you can say “You’ve been suckered into a three-card-Monte game, and the men in the crowd who supposedly had won cash were shills.”

In massive shock and grief, I hugged my instrument close to my chest, staggered back to 7th avenue and stood in Sheridan Square, wondering what I was going to do now. I ate my banana and took a minute to plot, keeping an eye on the street hustlers, bums and drug dealers, who didn’t seem so glamorous anymore. I finally dragged both palms down the front of my face, recovered, pointed the guitar east and headed off to Washington Square Park.

Ellis Hooks was a tall, lean, light-skinned black guitar player with some visible Cherokee in his cheekbones, a perpetual Iguana parked on his left shoulder and, most of the time, a Stetson on his close-cropped noggin. Delivering his own made-up-on-the-spot soul and blues songs mixed with Wilson Pickett, Stones and Bee Gees, he’d gathered a crowd of about two dozen passers-by, adoring women, drug addicts, students, street people and dancing children in Washington Square Park.

I had developed an allergy to most street guitarists I’d seen in my short, chaperoned trips to Manhattan, the majority of which were guys pawing 6 strings in public because they had no hope of ever getting a gig indoors. But Hooks was a young black Elvis, gyrating, barking, moaning and screeching in tune, and he was irresistible, raw, fun and sexy. After he’d finished a song, a young girl hoisted his open case in the air and walked through the crowd while the grinning guitarist hitched his jeans and made the perpetual pitch:

“10-4, ladies and gentlemen. Cash, check, American Express, airplane tickets.” The case came back full of dollars, fives and a few tens. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to do the same myself. I knew more chords than Ellis Hooks did, I reasoned, so I claimed a spot elsewhere in the park and started my own show.

I got a few glances but no stoppers; I was green, shy and obviously milk white without a teaspoon of soul. I needed money and I wanted to play, though, so I didn’t leave the park for the next 8 hours, hammering out the hundreds of tunes I knew, delivering each one to see if each had any effect whatsoever. Most or all were ignored. I was a musical embryo in this element, and there was no way to hide that. I was also deathly afraid of people and the city and was hardly a good-time glad-hander performer, like Ellis Hooks. Ellis barked a song from his gut, his veins and his heart. I didn’t know how to do that, didn’t even know there was such a thing. We were not the same and I was not “better” than he was, I had to concede.

Ellis Hooks wasn’t the only competition in the park, either. Several times a day, a performer named Tony Vera gathered a crowd of at least 100 underneath Washington Square Park’s arch, watching him spit lighter fluid from his mouth over a torch. This made a ball of fire spew 20 feet in front of him, and he never failed to collect, by my count, at least 100 bucks a set and he did at least 4 sets a day.

As evening approached, a battered, crack-addicted comedian named Charlie Barnett gathered crowds of almost equal size in the park’s dry fountain by walking in a circle and shouting “Show time! Show time!” When the crowd was big enough, he delivered a semi-scripted but mostly improvised set of deadly funny riffs on race, drugs, sex and life. When Tony or Charlie appeared in the park, any gathering of people I pulled in would drain like water from the tub right in the middle of my act. I’d shut my case until their sets were over, after which I’d start again and try to catch the spillover.

Simultaneously, at any given time, assorted lesser acts of one, two or more delivered music, monologues or dance around the park, all competing for dollars and attention. All performers at all times were surrounded by homeless men who drank and drugged and smoked through the day and got by on the change they could scrounge, and who saw others only as a means of getting the next meal. These people took a shine to me, and occasionally repelled the few who eventually stopped to give me and my act a chance. Any invitation for the bums and loonies to find another guitarist to attach themselves to, however, was met with belligerence and a reminder of what country we were in, and that was that.

I collected about 10 dollars over that day and into early evening, mostly coins, $4.75 of which was enough to cart me back home for a shower and a week’s recovery period. My father, rather than discouraging me from street performing, was delighted, and wanted to hear all about Ellis Hooks, the petty drug dealers, the street people and the cops who looked the other way as deals went down, men fooled around with each other in the piss-soaked bathroom, weed was smoked and cheap hard liquor was guzzled. Dad even wanted to come down and check me out, but I discouraged him, wanting the space to be no one from nowhere, and his appearance would have spoiled my fantasy.

The above story will be told in three parts. The next installment is Thursday.

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