Tales from the Tunnel: Busking in Central Park
Today marks my first foray into the world of busking. I used to play for the mentally ill and junkies in the parks of Portland, Oregon and I’ve played in random towns on benches while watching the trains pass by, but never for money. So here I am in New York, no job, and with nothing better to do, playing my guitar in a tunnel in Central Park. I have no stool, no guitar strap, and I’m sitting on the ground singing my tunes. Kids seem to like the music. They’re a bit enamored by the sight and sound of the guitar. Some are dragged away by their parents. Looking back in turkey-neck fashion they watch me with innocent curiosity and then disappear. Others are given a dollar or some quarters by their parents. Some even dance which I get a kick out of. After two hours my ass is a bit sore and the mosquitoes are starting to feast on me so I call it quits. Twenty-five bucks in a couple hours. I do the math. Maybe I can make a career out of this. I laugh at the idea and then put the guitar on my back and follow the heard down into the subway.
Rained all day. I wasn’t expecting much. Figured I’d practice some new songs. There were hardly any people out. In the tunnel I get a lot of the families on their way to or back from the zoo. I imagine seeing wet animals behind bars isn’t high on the tourist itinerary. A Japanese couple took some shelter from the rain, ate their lunch of noodles and rice. It smelled good. They were making me hungry, but I kept playing sad country songs. It was the rain. It had me in a weird mood. They had their backs turned to me the entire time not paying me any attention. When they finished their lunch they each put a dollar into my guitar case and thanked me for the songs. You just never know.
The highlight of the day was a very attractive girl who walked by, then stopped to listen to me playing Mississippi John Hurt’s Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me; a happy ragtime blues song with sad lyrics: “When my earthly trials over cast my body in the sea, save the undertaker bill, let the mermaids flirt with me.” She leaned against the tunnel wall next to me, smiling the whole time. When I was done she looked me deep in the eyes, peering into the depths of my soul, and said, in what I gathered was a Eastern European accent, “You juz made my day.” Shucks. I nearly melted as I watched her happily walk away, then cursing myself later for not asking her to marry me.
An hour or so later a guy stopped for a couple of songs. He was looking for the tennis courts, but liked what I was playing. Ended up he was from Long Beach, California where I was born. He said I sounded like some guy named Doyle Dykes. I’ve never heard of him. Then he asked me if I knew a particular ELP song.
“Huh?” I asked.
“You know, Emerson Lake and Palmer.”
“Nope, sorry, but I’m sure my dad would,” I said, thinking they were probably the same age.
“Fuck you Seth!” he said jokingly and then walked away.
I had a feeling today would be good. The last few days were overcast and raining. Then comes the weekend, the sun pokes its head back out, and along with it comes the crowds. Folks seemed to be in good spirits and feeling generous. I get lots of compliments as they walk by. Everyone talks about the cool acoustics in the tunnel. It’s a relatively low ceiling and supposedly there are sweet spots where the reverb sounds really cool. Sometimes I wonder if I’m any good at what I’m doing, but when the people say they like music I figure maybe I’m doing something right. A lot of beautiful females were smiling at me. I smile back. Without the guitar I’m just another of the eight million in this vast seat of movement, but with a guitar and stool, some country, folk, and blues, I’m actually someone of at least a little importance. After spending most of the past two years in Oregon in a relatively solitary existence, it’s a good feeling to have. It’s hard to believe that for the past five years I worked as an electrician. A few months ago I would’ve been a top a ladder fumbling with electrical wires, maybe a rotohammer putting in anchors. Now I’m sitting in Central Park amongst the crowds with the postcard view of the pond and the trees and the high-rise buildings of Manhattan. I couldn’t picture myself being anywhere else.
Very slow today. Can’t remember much exciting going on. Came out with twenty more bucks to my name. Not much for tips, but tons of people taking pictures from afar; it’s the tunnel and the guitar player. They don’t even listen to what I’m playing. Just take the picture quick and they’re off. Some folks might get angry about it, but I don’t. No one asked me to set up down here. I take note that I saw over one hundred Abercrombie and Fitch bags. Whoever the pretty boy model is on this bag is now forever etched into my mind. Beautiful men…beautiful women…beautiful children, from every country imaginable, pass by. I listen to the different languages spoken and try to figure out where they’re from. I’m feeling a little lonely today. It just hits some days. I’ve stopped playing the Rolling Stones Dead Flowers song. I love to play it, but for some reason singing lyrics about heroin and dead flowers and roses on a grave to little children seems a bit morbid.
I had to laugh as I was walking out of the park past the portrait artists and vendors
that sell photos of New York. There’s a guy who sells screenplays for movies. An old Jewish woman approached him and asked if he had one for Golden Girls. Nothing against the show, I just didn’t think it was something one would really want a screenplay of. He didn’t and the old woman walked away dejectedly with thoughts of Bea Arthur.
I was awoken very early this morning today by the persistent meowing of the cat I’m taking care of. I’m housesitting for a friend of mine in Williamsburg. The cat had food and water. He just wanted me to be up. I tried to tune him out. Soon it was the chop saws cutting through metal studs at the high-rise being built a few blocks away. It’s a sound I’m all too familiar with, but don’t miss at all. I could see the building out the window while lying in bed and I like it that way. Later on I’ll make in five hours what I used to make in an hour, and yet, I actually look forward to going to work. I can’t wait to get to the tunnel and see what’s in store.
Unfortunately nothing too exciting too note, but had fun anyway. I had a cameraman film me earlier in the day. Turned out he was Kid Rock’s cameraman. He was on tour and had the day off in New York. He was very friendly and excited about how it’d come out. He was filming all of the musicians in Central Park and I thought that was pretty admirable that he sets time aside for more artistic endeavors. Then again if I had to listen to Kid Rock every day for months I too would be desperately running around the park looking for music. Later on a photographer friend of mine who does a lot of work for the magazines and papers came by. He took a bunch of pictures of me in my office. I even did the pose and looked out towards the pond, I figured it was the money shot he was looking for. He was focused on just me but at one point I said, “Dave your missing the real picture.” Down at the other end of the tunnel was a little girl with her father. She was dancing in circles in the dark, a little ballerina; a beautiful sight to see. After the song she came running up with a dollar in her hand. “That was awesome,” my friend said. Things like that definitely make my day.
I played from noon till six today. The blisters on my thumb and fingers have formed into loose dead skin. I met Valentine, the Russian sax player that plays not too far from where I set up. Said he’d been out there for seven hours.
“Man, do your lips get sore?” I asked him.
“No, it all comes from here.” He pointed towards his stomach and said, “Good exercise.”
“You do o.k. today?”
“No, slow, no money. But c’est la vie. This is the life we choose. Practice. It’s good practice.”
My only break today was two minutes to inhale some leftover pizza, ten minutes messing with some broken string issues and amazingly I managed to leave with a hundred bucks in my pocket. Couldn’t believe it. It was much needed after most of the past week was slow. The Labor Day crowds were out. The first few hours were pretty typical, lots of change thrown into the case, tons of pictures taken (I wonder if maybe I should put myself in a cage and have a sign around my neck pointing towards the zoo. Aside from street musician I’ve also come to be Central Park direction guide). Some kids told me that one of the other musicians said they had to give him a couple of dollars to take a picture with him. I’m not all into that. I know it works for the Statue of Liberty guy out on 5th Ave. and 59th but I just can’t bring myself to that point.
People seemed to be really into the music today. Three hours into the day though I break the string on my guitar and of course I have every other string except for the one I need. I tried to put a larger string and it sounded horrible. Dejected, I started to pack up my gear. Then I put a higher string on. It didn’t sound great but I figured it could pass. This is the beauty of setting your own terms in the tunnel. Fumbling around like this at a show in a club would never work. Anyway, I was playing a song by Guy Clark when a couple stopped to listen. It was a man maybe in his late forties and a young, stunningly beautiful black-haired French girl. She was wearing a dress and I couldn’t help but stare at her. They loved the lyrics to the song, The Cape. It’s about a man who, convinced he’s Superman, continually jumps off of his garage. “Well, he’s one of those that know that life is just a leap of faith. Spread your wings, hold your breath, and always trust your cape.” They were really digging it and I even closed my eyes myself and felt the muse. They threw some money in but I didn’t look to see how much. They asked me if that was my own song. I said it wasn’t, but I could play them one of my own if they wanted. I played them a song about a woman that is living in Alaska working at a cannery and one day decides to leave her husband and drive her Mercury Comet across the country, picking up an eighteen year-old Indian kid in Sioux Falls. Thus an affair ensues. They seemed to like it and then went on their way. When I looked down in the guitar case there was twenty-five more dollars. Couldn’t believe it! I’ve played in punk bands for years when we were happy just to get 30 bucks and a 12 pack of beer for a show. Now I’d made that much just for a couple of songs.
An hour later a man approaches. He has that Italian suave look, hair down to the shoulders. He’s dressed very sharp, big camera in tow.
“You got change for a ten?” he asked.
I looked down and said I did.
“Actually, let’s do this. Give me five back and play something happy that’ll make them dance. You know Beatles?”
I’m probably the only one on earth that doesn’t know Norwegian Wood. I’m not even a huge fan of the Beatles. Oh well.
I was in a strange tuning and only new one song that I could play.
“I just know the blues,” I said.
“All right, that’s fine, just make them dance.”
I looked to the left of me and noticed a crowd of jovial wedding goers approaching, dressed to the tee in red dresses and tuxedos. There was also another cameraman with a huge video camera taping it all.
So as I played John Hurt’s Pay Day I had them dancing in circles around the tunnel, the married couple in the middle. The rest of the folks had their arms raised and were holding hands. Laughing. Singing. It looked like some kind of Greek or Russian dance. I didn’t know if what I was playing actually went along with their rhythms but I just kept on playing. They seemed happy. I think I repeated the song about three times. They even brought the party over to the center of the tunnel and continued in circles and I almost felt myself get dizzy. When I finished the father of the bride thanked me and threw in a ten-dollar bill. He seemed elated. Off they paraded out of the tunnel and around the corner. It’s time like these when it all seems right. The rest of the day was relatively quiet, but I didn’t mind.
Sunday was relatively slow. Played for about four hours. I was tired today. Some days you got it, some days you don’t. I packed up early. Can’t really think of any events that stand out.
Not very many people in the park. I imagine after the three-day weekend folks took a break. I think school is back in session so maybe the number of families on vacation is dwindling. The sky was overcast today and the weather has cooled off quite a bit. I played for about three hours and came away with 10 bucks. Early on I had a group of high school kids, all Central American, but from the Bronx. They were real friendly and curious about the whole street musician thing, how much I made, where I was from. I let a couple of them mess around on the guitar. After that I pretty much just played for the tunnel.
Another slow day. I’m realizing this isn’t quite as much fun without all the interaction. Notes of interest: I had a nicely dressed couple pass by and tip me, then they went about thirty feet into the middle of the tunnel and a very passionate make-out session ensued. It’s times like these when I wish I knew a sweet romantic Spanish song, you know, maybe some Segovia. Unfortunately I don’t so I played a John Prine song about coal companies destroying the land in Kentucky. No wonder I don’t make much.
I’ve decided I’m going to take the next two days off and look for a “real” job, whatever that is. I’ve told myself this numerous times in the past few weeks, but I’m serious this time. I’d also like to practice some new songs. Doc’s Guitar, I Saw the Light, You Got to Reap What you Sow, If I Were a Carpenter, some more Carter family, maybe a couple of Rolling Stones, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake if I can ever figure one of his songs out. I pack up early and head over to the fountain by West 4th St. and watch the people on the benches and the mice scattering around in the bushes and at their feet.
Day 11 and 12.
It’s rained the past couple of days. Not much good for business. The homeless folks hang out in the tunnel to keep dry. Earlier there was a younger couple; I’ve seen them in here before. I think they’re on drugs. They were screaming at one another for off and on, then hugging, then passing out, then yelling again. I just do my thing.
Sunday: Crowded, came away a little more money than the weekday, with no job anything helps. A Jewish college girl sat off to the side in the tunnel for a couple of hours listening to me. She then moved right in front of me. Think she had a crush on me. I can’t say I was attracted to her, but she was nice, enjoyed her company. She said she was doing her homework, but I doubt she got much done. Sitting there for that long, she got a small glimpse of what the tunnel’s like, the kids hopping around, me bullshitting my way through songs I don’t know the words to, the slow time. I joked around with her. She found it all quite interesting. She didn’t have any cash, but she wanted to write me a check. I said it wasn’t a big deal, but she insisted. She made it out for 15 bucks and in the For section she wrote “A wonderful afternoon.”
Later on I was playing and a photographer was taking pictures of me. I get a lot of this, probably three to four serious photographers a day. She goes to Fashion school, studying photojournalism. Her dad was with her, also taking pictures. I sang Freight Train for them. It just so happened that the father had been a freight train operator in upstate New York. He asked if I knew the Wabash Cannonball, an old country song about the adventures of a mythical train, Roy Acuff and Carter Family and many others have done this song. I knew part of it, but not the chords. In front of me the dad started singing the song acapella. I tried to follow what he was singing. Like nearly every country song, the chords were C,F,G and within ten seconds I had the song down. It was pretty damn cool. Part of the playing in public thing that makes it fun is being able to spontaneously adapt to your crowd. It makes it more enjoyable for the folks and yourself. Music has something magical in it that the spoken word doesn’t, and in those moments when you can get it right, it makes it all seem right.
Today plodded along. More rain. Fall’s coming fast. Once again, compliments on acoustics, but after nearly three hours I had ten bucks in the bag. I’m feeling tired, not sure why, just in a hazy lazy mood. At one point this couple that looked they had just walked out of a Manhattan lawyers office…Italian, Spanish guy and Vietnamese woman? She was grabbing onto his arms facing him and he was pushing her away. I figured they were just horse playing, but when she turned around her face was read and drenched in tears. She was hysterical. The struggled continued through the length of the tunnel.
Over by the stairs the man yells, “That’s it! We’re through! You’re gone!”
She screams, “No!”
Then they disappeared. I could still hear them somewhere atop the stairs. Then the man reappeared. Then the woman was back. Screaming, crying, more grappling. It reminded me a lot of how an ex-girlfiend I lived with for three years was when we split up. They were memories I really didn’t feel like re-experiencing so I tried to think of any songs I knew with make-up lyrics in hopes that it might lighten the somber mood. After an hour they walked back to my side of the tunnel. They had their hands around one another. The man glanced at me with a somewhat embarrassing expression and then they disappeared into the crowds. I called it quits shortly after.
I found a tree over by Wollman Rink. A fella’ I see quite often in this area peddling random wares for the tourists approached me. I’d say he’s fifty something, and though not dressed badly, I can tell he’s homeless. First time I walked by him he said, “You all right brother? Need a map?” I’ve seen him out in the rain, a garbage bag for a coat, trying to make a buck. The tourists aren’t paying him much mind so he comes up to me. He’s got a sleeping bag with him along with a stuffed backpack. Tells me he’s staying temporarily with his sisters, a single mother in a project in Harlem.
“Too loud there. You know who it be too. Them young girls. All screaming, carrying on at three in the morning. Couple of them all right looking, but they ain’t all that. They always leaving their bottles out in the front too. Cops be coming over now. I’m tired man. Real tired.”
“And they be having them construction workers right outside the window all the time. You know those platforms that window guys use. These guys be putting something in the bricks to make the rain water run off better. Always outside the window like they could just walk right in the room. Can’t even smoke a joint or nothing. The ladies be loving it though. You know they love to tease. It’s true. Walking around all naked, especially the woman below, she fine too, oh man, she got these laborers hanging out there all day, some of them don’t do nothing. I seen their checks though. Thousand bucks a week. I be lucky if I make five hundred in two weeks.”
I get curious as to how he makes this much money, but I don’t ask.
“That’s good work. I need a new game.”
“I was staying with this other guy. He does a coke and all that, don’t care, but he one of them types, think he’s all better than everyone else, ain’t no use for that, plus he tells me I can’t have no woman over at the place. Fuck that! I say, what, I just going to stare at you all day? No way. You got to be able to have a lady over. It’s cold, but shit, I’d rather sleep in the park.”
I pass out, using my guitar for a pillow. When I wake up it’s dark, the park’s relatively empty, and an old Asian lady is sleeping right next to me.
A homeless guy came up and pissed right in front of me, not enough to get any spray, thank God, but he didn’t even bother to go behind a bush. The Vietnam vet who hasn’t showered in a year and is trashed by noon at least knows enough to go at least out of sight of the kids. Later on the homeless guy told me to give him three dollars. I had two bucks in the case after and hour and a half. It was that kind of day.
Today I met one of the most, intelligent and entertaining people I’ve ever come across. His name is Barry, older Jewish guy from Brooklyn. I forget his Hebrew name, but it’s meaning is Bear, so he took on Barry for his English name. He appeared like some sort of apparition, I didn’t even see him walk up. Suddenly he’s asking me if know any Fred Neil songs. Strange because I know very little of his music, but another guy I used to see sometimes in the park off of Burnside in Portland, Brian was his name, really hard on his luck, no money to his name, living in a shelter with all the drug addicts and he didn’t do any of that shit but he needed a place to sleep and he was tired, real tired, tired of it all, saying he was almost to the point where it just wasn’t worth it, this whole thing, this fucked up life and I tried to talk him out of it, but he was just in that way, but Brian knew all about music, an encyclopedia, he knew every Stones song and could tell you about every fingerpicking bluesmen. He knew African, Indian music, it went on and on. Where are you Brian? I hope you’re making it. Anyway, Brian told me Fred Neil was one of the greatest folk singers. He’s probably most well known for writing a song that was in the movie Midnight Cowboy,
“Everybody’s talking about me, they don’t hear a word I’m saying…” He was a big influence on the New York folk scene in the 60’s, but fell of the map, moved to Florida and then made his life mission saving dolphins.
Barry’s probably around 60, in good shape, very animated. He has a thick deep, New York accent. He tells me he does voice-over work, commercials, movies.
“Oh, shit,” I say. “Are you the guy that does the previews? A man, a woman, alone in the world, against all odds.”
Barry laughs and says he does some of that. He then goes into a Rod Serling impersonation, squints his eyes and says, “No, I would do it like this. A guitar player, the troubadour of the tunnel, a mere eight dimes in his case, when all of the sudden, it turned into gold.” He sounded just like Rod. I started to sing out the theme music for the Twilight Zone. All we needed was the backwards flying clock.
Barry says, “That guy was a genius. He used to dictate all his stuff to some hot young woman while sitting in a recliner next to a pool with a martini in his hand. Talk about imagination.”
Barry moved to Los Angeles in the late 60’s along with his brother. They wrote songs for some Motown artists, big-time artists like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. He sings another song of his he wrote that he had in mind for Lou Rawls. I can’t remember the words, but I can definitely picture it as an R&B hit.
He has an uncanny ability to recite lyrics and poems in their entirety, Buddhist quotes, he talks in this cool cat-like rhythm that brings to mind the Beats. He recites a tongue and cheek song he wrote about a country guy roaming around New York. He then goes into Yeats, Dickens, the Dalai Lama. He’s an encyclopedia of knowledge. Barry’s also working on a screenplay. He asks me not to tell anyone about the story, so I’ll leave out the details, but he has me laughing as he goes into acting out each character, as if he’s performing a one-man show on Broadway.
We get to talking about kids. I’m telling him how they seem to really like the guitar, and also about their lack of inhibitions, how they feel music truthfully and innocently, which as we grow older sometimes we lose. He tells me about a project he did in a school in Harlem called “No Adults Left Behind,” a spoof off the “No Child Left Behind,” law from a few years back. In it kids, maybe 1st or 2nd grade, interview one another discussing the deepest of philosophical questions. What is love? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? Why do people fight? Why do people hate each other? Kids respond with the simplest, honest answers. It’s a great video. Go to You Tube and type in No Adults Left Behind.
Barry goes on to tell me about mind expansion, how sight actually contains seven different senses. It’s all a little over my head, but I find it quite interesting. He’s really into the original meaning of words. Etymology. How words original meanings definitions change over time into the words that we have now. We talk about dreams and Eastern thought. He says that Hindu religion believes that music creates lights and the Jewish believe that for an angel to move from one place to another you have to sing it a song. He’s an ever-flowing fountain of words. At one point a group of about fifty women dressed in white, all shapes and sizes and races, files through the tunnel, in single file, doing some sort of yelling singing and dancing. It was straight out of a Fellini movie. Barry places his hands together and bows in Buddhist fashion. He then looks at me and shakes his head as if to say, “Isn’t life fascinating?”
As he stands at the beginning of the tunnel I tell him he should set up shop there. Be the riddler. Folks can’t pass through unless people answer with the right answer. He laughs and sings another song he says he wrote. It’s all about taking the “high road.” An hour and a half later, Barry the beat mystic, the Buddhist philosopher, heads home.
Today was a good day money-wise. Sunday and folks were in a pleasant mood. Can’t remember much too exciting, but I had fun. Walked over to where Valentine hangs out. We started talking about various musicians. I mentioned Sonny Rollins and we started singing the melody to St. Thomas. Then Monk, so we sang Straight No Chaser, then to the Russians: Tchiakovsky, whom I didn’t really know, so I sang one of Brahm’s Hungarian Dances, and Brahms wasn’t even Russian, but I figured, geographically speaking they were somewhat close. We go into the writers. Gorky. Tolstoy. Checkov. Mayakovsky.
“America #1. Good country. Best schools. Musicians up here,” Valentine says raising his arm up high.
“Russia no good. President no good. All KGB. No money. All musicians leave Russia. No good music.
“My English no good. I take all tests long time ago. I’m citizen, but English no good. Only talk to Russians, no English, you understand me? You understand?”
He tells me he’s getting good practice by speaking English with me. He teaches me some crazy sounding Russian words, one I can’t remember, but that means horrible looking face, something not just ugly but that you hate and despise. I’m not sure why but I teach him the Spanish phrase, “Manana, manana.”
As I leave he says, “See ya Set’. America #1. Ah yes, America #1.”
His arms are raised and a big smile displaying very old teeth is painted across his face. A little kid walks by him and he plays, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
The park is quiet since kids have gone back to school. Hardly anyone comes through the tunnel. I ought to move around, maybe go down into the subway, but I’ve grown attached to my little spot. I only played 2 hours today. Came away with six bucks. Went over to the fountain and practiced some new songs: couple of Blind Blake tunes, Henry Thomas’s Fishing Blues, Windy and Warm which I’ve heard Chet Atkins do, another John Prine song.
Hungover, barely able to sit on the stool, but I try to play through it. For most of the day no one paid much attention. Like my homeless friend down by the rink says, “I need a new game.”
Later on in the day I was in an open G tuning, just kind of noodling around, making up an ambient song in a bastardized blues progression, you know, feeling it. A Spanish looking guy approached and said what I was playing reminded him of a Spanish guitar player who mixes Flamenco with new-age type music.
Alejandro is a bartender at an exclusive members-only bar in a hotel off of 54th St. in midtown Manhattan. Super rich and well-known folks only allowed. The likes of Kissinger and Ted Kennedy hung out there. He’s been behind the bar for over twenty years, says it’s too good of a job for him to leave. I ask if he needs a helper. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. I mentioned Andres Segovia, the great classical Spanish guitar player, and he told me that his brother actually played once at a club he worked at. For the longest time Alejandro was trying to think of a modern virtuoso Flamenco guitarist who did some sort of collaboration with Sting. He says what he plays is absolutely amazing. But he’s stumped. He can’t think of the name and I’m clueless. It’s right on the tip of his tongue and driving him crazy. Eventually, he left, frustrated. Five minutes later he came back running towards the tunnel. A good thirty feet away he yells, “Paco Lucia!” He was so happy he’d remembered his name. Hid good deed for the day had been done, and as I laughed he walked away from the tunnel with a little skip in his step.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to the tunnel and as I’m sitting here, I’m realizing I this will probably be my last day out here, at least for the next few months. I got myself a job bussing tables at a restaurant in Manhattan; yes, money, the necessary evil we all have to adhere to, along with very cold weather, has forced me out into the streets of Manhattan begging for a “real” job. Luckily, I was able to find something. After a few days of work I had Sunday off so I decided to go to the park. It felt good to be there, setting the stool up, the guitar in my hands and the folks milling about.
Once again, it was good times with the New York characters roaming around. Out of the four hours I was there, I probably played about two; the other time spent distracted.
The day started off with a guy from Wales. Shaved head, stocky, he looked like those Hooligans that go to the soccer matches, but maybe that’s just an off-based stereotype. He told me he thought the music sounded great. He put a couple of dollars in the bag and then asked if he could video me playing a song and then saying hi to the kids back in England. I obliged, looked into the camera, fingerpicked Elizabeth Cotton, and sent my greetings.
“Can I tell you a story? Got to tell soomone. So I jus’ got to New York yesterday. I was supposed to go to London with me best mate. The misses needs a new car and me and my best mate were going together to get this car. Just so happens one of the best motorcyle riders in the world is going to be there, eh. So we’re gonna’ stop at the airport, take some photos of him y’know. But see I’ve got this other business that week, trying to set it up before the trip. But soomtin’ seems sketchy, dun’ know wut’, but soomtin’ not right, eh, a feelin’. I don’t tell the misses because I want to surprise her with the new car. But the night before I’m gonna’ leave she cooms up to me wit’ this strange look on her face, soomtin’ not right, you know that look.
“So I say, ‘Woot’s the matta’ hun?’ She looks at me with that strange face y’know and says, ‘I have to tell ya’ soomtin’.’
“All right hun, woot’s on your mind, eh?”
‘I don’t know how to say this love, but I’ve been very naughty.’
“So now, I’m thinkin’, woot’s going on here. This is serious you know.”
“Woot ya’ me mean naughty I say?”
‘I haven’t been truthful with ya’ love. I’ve been a bit of a naughty girl.’
“Jesus Christ loov, woot ya mean by all this?”
‘Well, dun’ know how to say this loov, but me and your best mate have doon soomtin’ naughty behind your back.’
“At this point my hearts pumpin’, sweating ya know, I mean, me and the misses have our fun with others, you know, a little fun here and there ay, but not with me best mate. So I say to her, “Well, spit it out loov. Woot’ve you done with me mate?”
‘Well, loov, I bought you a ticket to New York. You leave from London tomorrow morning.’
“What? New York? Ay, I thought you were going to tell me you were fuckin’ me best mate.”
“I almost had a heart attack right there, I felt it pumpin’ good. So here I am, that’s my story. But tell me soomptin’, where can I find the real New York?”
I’m caught a little off guard buy this question. I can’t think of one particular part of the city you could label as the “real” New York.
“I’m talking where real New Yorkers are. Not all the fancy lights and the big buildings and the expensive restaurants and the foreigners.”
I tell him I’m relatively new to the city, but from what I’ve seen New York is an amalgamation of many different neighborhoods and nationalities. I mean hasn’t this guy ever heard of Ellis Island? The city was built by immigrants. I tell him of Chinatown and Harlem, the East Village and the West, Chelsea, Hells Kitchen, the many different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Italians and Polish, the Muslims and the Jewish and Carribeans. He tells me he’s bothered by all the immigrants in the city. Says in the town where he lives back home only two percent of the kids that go to the schools are English. It’s a shame. Everything’s changed. I showed him a few areas on the map he gave to me, but whether or not he found the New York he was looking for, I don’t know.
An hour later a crazy Italian, kind of a bastardized, slobbering version of Robert Deniro showed up in the tunnel. It was then that I wished the English guy was around. This was probably the New York he desired to see on his vacation. His name was Charlie. I was playing a Fahey tune when he walked by. The song I was playing is called Sunflower Splendor, a variation of Vestapol, an old instrumental a lot of old-time musicians did. Charlie was very animated.
“Hey, you know The Hobo’s Lullaby?”
I told him I did.
I started to play the old Guthrie tune and Chalrie stuck his hands on his waist, chest pointed out, facing outside of the tunnel, and sang out in a deep baritone voice, “Go to sleep you weary hobo, let the town drift slowly by…”
Then all of the sudden, with the people passing by, Charlie goes into a full operatic rendition of Woody. Then he throws in some of his own lines, almost in some sort of Rodney Dangerfield fashion, “Yeah, yeah, tell me about it.” He was definitely the showman. I couldn’t help but laugh. After the song Charlie told me he was in the process of writing his childhood memoirs. Other people that had read parts of it told him his writing reminded him of Raymond Carver and David Sedaris, but he couldn’t stand those guys.
“Fuck Sedaris, that clown was selling flowers, gets on the radio, and boom, he’s famous. Shit, I’ll be like Hemmingway, go to Paris with my ailing gay lover (Fitzgerald). I tell you what. You know the secret to writing? I’m gonna’ tell you right now. Think back to your youngest memories, kindergarten, grade school, a teacher, the beach. Now write five words, anything, any words, and then leave a blank space, then five more words and another blank space. Sit at the kitchen table and have another person fill in the blanks. I’m tellin’ ya’, it works.”
“Hey, I wrote a song. You mind?”
I hand him the guitar. He stands proudly, although without a strap it’s hard for him to hold the guitar.
“From the shores of Carolina to the Blue Ridge mountains…” His guitar skills aren’t great, but it’s a great traveling country song, all about coming back to his true love in New York. Charlie even gets a couple of dollars from the passing tourists. “Come on, tell me about it, one more time now!” he shouts out and then sings the chorus again.
We sang Freight Train together in wavering harmony. He seemed like one of those old types from the neighborhood, maybe a little too goofy to run with the tough guys, but all said the loveable Italian jokester from the “corner.” As he walked away he said, “You got it kid, you got it.” He then raised his arm in front of him, like something out of a Greek play, and did his best impersonation of Pavarotti.
The day goes along, hours pass by, songs go unheard, change is thrown, some dollars here and there…when up walks Barry.
“Oh Lord, all the crazies are out today,” I say jokingly.
Barry points at me, then brings his fingers between his eyes, says something so deep and prolific that I can’t remember. I say, “That sounds like some Confuscious shit.”
Barry says I ought to do Springsteen songs. I’ll double my tips. I tell him folks don’t want to hear dark songs about murderers roaming the Midwestern landscape with young girls when they’re strolling out in the park. He says maybe I have a point. He asks me if I’ve learned any Fred Neil songs and I tell him I haven’t gotten around to it. He tells me about a painting over at the Met by a Dutch painter, Vermier I think. It’s of an old woman pouring a pitcher of milk into a glass, but the painting is so true and real, he says it brought tears to his eyes. He stares off and I wonder if maybe he might shed a tear right there in the tunnel. But he doesn’t. The conversation’s short today, a large crowd of families approaches, and Barry walks away not wanting to distract me, “Hurry, play something,” he says and then he’s gone.
For other stories: www.talesfromthetunnelny.blogspot.com