Thursday, October 2, 2008

Park it here---part 2 of 3

Click here for "Park it here" Part 1, to refresh yer noodle if need be

I trained and subwayed back to the park the following weekend, set up my open case and started playing.

A few people recognized me from the weekend before, and this time a few dropped a buck. I had boiled down my repertoire to about 10 good songs---common classic rock I was used to and could belt out with no microphone. I also began including Tin Pan Alley material I knew, and occasionally fired out the instrumental parts to "Over the hills and far away" and other sure-fire Led Zeppelin riffs. Zeppelin was the eternal basket of restaurant bread, though, in that I could play the riffs but not sing the songs credibly, so I never performed that material in its entirety. Instead, the musical interludes to "Communication Breakdown" or "The Immigrant Song" were used as lures.

I also began doing anything I could think of to make people look at me, like perching precariously on the edge of metal garbage cans, playing guitar behind my head or pretending to sing lyrics that were deliberate nonsense every now and then, which got laughs. I also became known for dispensing, within seconds, virtually any Beatles song in the catalogue for a buck. You had to be careful with the Beatles, though, because everyone knew the words and wanted to sing along. If you played more than two Fab Four songs in a row, a quick mob would inevitably form which usually included guys with guitars they couldn’t play. Your set subsequently became the property of whoever had the biggest mouth and the most beer in him, and 20 minutes would pass with nothing tossed in your case and every sour Sam and Sally chiming in. A street set, I learned, had to have a start, middle and finish, and guest vocalists and musicians were to be discouraged by whatever means necessary if the money was to keep rolling in.

I made $88 at the end of my first day, mostly singles which I uncrumpled, straightened and deposited in my guitar case. After all the wholesome tourists had gone from the park in the early evening, replaced by the party people, the inebriated and the troublemakers, I sat in Bagel Buffet on 6th avenue, drinking the same cup of coffee for three hours while writing in my journal until I was kicked out. I wandered around the West Village and found a deserted street, selected a safe-looking darkened doorway, and there I rolled up my duffel bag into a pillow, drew a newspaper over my head, and tried to sleep.

At 6 AM, when they let people back into the park, I claimed a spot and snoozed on the ground. The park didn’t get busy until late morning, so I chatted with the park people and students wanting directions, practiced riffs, read newspapers and waited, occasionally baring teeth at another guitar player who thought he should have my section of real estate simply because he’d had it yesterday.

I played all day, the same 10 songs, trying, trying to become something worth looking at and worth someone’s dollar, removing a shirt, tying a bandana around my leg, whatever produced people in front of me who would grant me the privilege of listening. The sun reddened my face, the wind made my kinky hair explode, my fingers and strings were filthy, but there I remained.

Soon people tossed real money in my case, not as much money as I’d seen Ellis collect, but money that folded instead of jingled, and I became that which I wanted to be, and I was no longer a phony from the suburbs.There now was no hesitation when I opened my case, set it in front of me, started a song and walked back and forth on an imaginary stage as I played. I got my desired transient audience plus a few sweet N.Y.U. students like Bonnie and Gabriella who became my mini-fan club, watching my case when I went to the bathroom or to get food, and who made song suggestions.

During one set towards sundown, an inexplicable enormous mob formed in front of me, and I thought I’d finally hit the jackpot. I finished, got a big hand and saw Ellis Hooks walking through the crowd with my guitar case, shouting, “Give it up, give it up for the boy!” He’d been standing behind me while I played, and that was what had drawn the big crowd.

My case came back with $40, an absolute fortune for a single set. The crowd dispersed.

“Thanks. You didn’t have to do that,” I said, packing up. I’d had it—voice shot, fingers sore.

“Naw, it’s nothing, man. How’d you like to buy me a hot dog—on you?” His voice was equally worn-out from singing at the top of his voice all day. He reached into my case and took a five.

“That’s my agent fee!” he said. I didn’t argue.

I had no idea why Ellis had taken the slightest of interest in me, but I was game to be his new pal. He walked with long, Alabama cowboy steps, and I trailed along as fast as I could. Every single person who passed us seemed to know Ellis, and he’d respond to greetings shouted with a hearty “Hey!” or “Howdy, son!”

We met up with two Portuguese girls Ellis knew, and together we walked to West 8th street where Grey’s Papaya, the home of the 50-cent hot dog, was. The girls, Dina and her little sister Albertina, were barely 20 and I wanted them to like me like they liked Ellis, but it was impossible to compete with him on that level. They did not want to know anything about me, where I’d come from, what my story was, or if I had a girlfriend or not. It was all right here, right now, and the hugs and kisses delivered to Ellis were off the menu for yours truly. Ellis was the center of attention, in the park and, now, on the street.

We stayed that night at the once-spanking but now beat-up Marlton Hotel, and the girls paid. I soon realized Ellis almost never produced money for anything; every girlfriend he had, and there were many, soon figured out his company would cost them. He was sought after by dozens of women and he knew it, and everything from his food to his roof to his beer to other necessities were essentially free. Tonight the girls were paying fifty bucks for two rooms, his and mine, and the price was his presence.

We hung out in his room, talking, laughing and picking guitars until midnight when he kicked Dina and I out. After spending an innocent night in the same bed as Dina, listening through the wall to sounds various people get up to when they flop in a cheap hotel, I rose early, washed up in the bathroom sink down the hall and headed like a boomerang back to the park.

I was delighted to have what I thought was a new city friend, especially one so locally famous and influential, but Ellis’ face was closed to me when I approached him in the park later that day. His “hi” and grin was a mask, and he acted as though we hadn’t spent 6 hours together the night before. We were not to be friends, colleagues or anything else, which was the way he treated everyone, Dina told me later, including herself and Albertina, and that was the way it was with the Alabama cowboy. I was crushed and slunk back to my spot to do another set, and another.

Part 3 of 3 will appear tomorrow.

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