Another Day at the Office
I went on to set up in that tunnel in August and September for the next five weeks. Each day I got a little more comfortable with my new form of employment. Like any job, there were your good days and bad days. I made as little as eight dollars and as much as a hundred dollars in what usually consisted of about four hours. Tax free. Thoreau would be proud. Money had very little to do with why I was out there; but then again, any compensation for your art, for doing what you love, despite what anyone says, is always welcome. And the best part was that, for once in my life, I was my own boss. There was nowhere to clock in and no one to report to. No journeymen to bow down to. No manager with a feeling of superiority looming over me. In the tunnel I called the shots. I played what I wanted and when I wanted. I took my break when I was tired, and when I felt like going home, that was it. I packed my guitar up, counted my earnings, and filed back into the streets, almost mysteriously. No one knowing of my daily exploits, I’d ride the subway smashed alongside the other riders reading and with their headphones on, some of them just staring off into another world. I’d curiously watch them with my little secret life of sorts to myself.
But the reality is, what I loved most was the spontaneous interaction. Sitting on my stool with some wood and some strings and a lackluster voice and a book full of songs memorized, I was granted time with folks from all walks, everything from life-long New Yorkers to tourists visiting from every country imaginable. Many of them would stop to request songs, tell me a story, ask how I’d come about to playing in the tunnel. I couldn’t help but marvel at how entirely different it was from the makeup of a playing a live show. Aside from the music, I had to be personable, willing to talk, and willing to listen. I had to provide the brief role of entertainer and, although I don’t deem myself to be much of one, I had fun trying my hand at it.
Barry, the philosophical Buddhist Jewish voice-over man of Manhattan comes up to me and asks me about Fred Neil. Two hours later, I realize I am sitting in front of the most animated intellectual person I’ve ever come across as he goes into lengthy discussions about the deepest and most profound questions of man. A retired freight train operator is singing the “Wabash Cannonball” word for word as I quickly figure out the chords. A wedding party of twenty foreigners is dancing in circles before me as I play John Hurt’s “Pay Day” four times in a row. A gorgeous girl from Colorado talks with me and takes pictures for an hour and as I tell her, “You are beautiful,” she keeps her hand held in mine for more than just a while. She gives me a big smile and parts ways and skips through the tunnel and up the stairs. On a cold, rainy day the most amazing looking French woman leans on the wall next to me and tells me “You juz’ made my day.” An hour later, a bum pisses right in front of me and demands three dollars. The Vietnam vet who hasn’t showered in months and is always wasted by noon, looks at me from the corner of his eye as he stumbles by. A baby in a stroller bops his head around as his Caribbean nanny pushes the cart to and fro. Boris, the grumpy sax man, curses me for playing in the tunnel. Valentine, the Russian sax man, greets me with a smile each day and says, “America! Great Country! C'est la vie. This is the life we choose!” An old school Brooklyn Italian sings Woody Guthrie songs to me and serenades the people passing by in an operatic voice that would make Pavarotti and Bocelli cringe.
These are days when you are looking down into the case with a few bucks, two hours of hardly anyone paying any attention, sort of wondering what exactly it is you’re doing out there. Then people like this come to you and you realize that this is your place. That though you spend much of life in question, wondering where and what you are supposed to be doing with the hand you are given, whether you are a success or failure, if maybe you could’ve gone about things another away; that at this particular time this is where you are meant to be and were meant to be. Whatever questions or fears you have in regards to making it, well, they’re briefly answered.
All in all, I went to the tunnel about twenty times, taking notes of each day: the highs, the lows, and all the in betweens. My goal was just to give a little glimpse into the world from the musician’s perspective. As I did, the words began to pile and pile one after another.
The last time I played in Central Park was in October. The weather had considerably cooled off as winter approached and there weren’t nearly as many people out. My fingers freezing, I found it impossible to pick out the notes on my guitar. I realized, as much as I liked playing, I wouldn’t be back for a while.
New York is a hustle town, I suppose more than any other I’ve ever been in; you see the prosperity in the suit and ties and sleek dresses on the streets of upper and lower Manhattan and in the trust fund college kids and you see the fallen dream in the raving chalk-legged men on 3 a.m. subways and sleeping on benches and in front of storefronts in the dead of winter. So I laid the guitar down and went out and got a job bussing and bar backing at big Texas BBQ restaurant in Manhattan. Although it isn’t much of a skilled trade, I can honestly say that I enjoy the work, much more so than I did being an electrician. Every day I ascend from the subway up into the streets and often I question whether or not—the buildings touching the clouds and the sun and moon somewhere out there though you can’t ever see them, the millions of cabs and people bustling about—I’m not still sitting in Portland, fast asleep; instead in some rather strange industrial dream in which I’ve yet to wake up from. Maybe something out of Metropolis. Soon I will open my eyes to the dark light of the morning and a constant drizzle and find myself stumbling around in a foggy haze and putting my boots on and grabbing my tool bag and growling back at the mean raccoon that hugs the tree in my front yard.
Thankfully, that’s not the case, so in my spare time I decided to type up all of my journal writings from the park and other musings from New York rambles. I also went through old columns from when I was writing for Razorcake and put them online. I hadn’t hardly written in over four years and now I felt rejuvenated with the word; not knowing if it was any good, but enjoying going through old and new tales, some happy, some sad, but stories all the same. I figured they were just gathering dust, sitting on the shelf along with rejection letters from a few I tried sending to other magazines, so why not throw them out there?
Now, as I sit in front of the window of my apartment, staring out at the warehouses and a huge carwash billboard and an air conditioning rooftop unit with wires fully exposed (definitely an electrical code violation. Stop it! Those days are over. Let it go!), a mysterious pair of underwear that hangs on the barbwire surrounding the back perimeter (foiled burglar maybe?), listening to the cars and semi-trucks racing along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway towards the Battery Tunnel as the rain washes the Christmas snow away, sending me into a calm, meditative trance of sorts, I’m left with these thoughts:
Life is merely a long line of fleeting moments, an endless array of frames we find ourselves in, and as much as we want to hold on to them, as much as we want to give them a lasting sense of permanence, they run away from us, like forgotten dreams that we’re desperately trying to grasp onto, swinging blindly, like an old boxer caught on the ropes, flailing aimlessly into thin air; then again, sometimes they’re engrained in our blood, tattooed thick, everlasting, forever following us around like shadows, that it is this ebb and flow over time that shapes our being, our experience, our view of the world and ourselves in the midst of the orchestra, in the vastness, in the dark and in the light, in the movement and in the middle, of it all. One moment we’re filled with love or belonging, amazement and laughter; in another we’re filled with fear or sadness, maybe despair, maybe anger, loneliness; but there’s a certain vivid truth in all of these emotions that form the spirit, that form the soul, that make us who we are; but I’ve come to realize that, really, when it comes down to it, maybe looking at life in this way is trivial; all things pass, from good to bad, old to new; emotions and experiences and relationships will come to take new shapes and new forms and, truth is, it goes on and on like this until one day, most likely, we part ways with the world as we know it…and now my mind drifts far from my room and downdowndown, into the underground: it is the end of summer and I’m riding the 6 train into Manhattan out of the West Indian streets of Crown Heights and emerging into the lunch crowds along Lexington Ave. (a world of separation) and I think of the good life and mimosas in the sun and neatly folded napkins and doormen in fancy suits and ornate iron fences that lead to courtyards and enormous suites, and oh, just for a little of that, and now I’m making a left down 59th St., standing before the opulent Plaza Hotel and feeling the spray of the fountain at Grand Army Plaza in the epicenter of the world’s fashion and consumer society and the idea of a ridiculous amount of wealth (Trump Towers, hundred dollar T-shirts, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tiffany & Co.) hits me square across the jaw, and the buildings line up unending, down the blocks of 5th Ave. like enormous dominoes, and I stand in the middle of the crosswalk marveling at it all, but a few seconds later a cab driver brings me out of my reverie, yelling bloody murder at me with his horn and I wave my hand back at him and there he goes, blasting that horn again, but there is no anger in any of it, only a strange from of communication, an organized chaos of language and music of the city and the streets, and I now stand by the brick wall across the way, observing the crowds for a brief moment, a panorama left to right with the horse carriages lined up and street vendors and tour busses and sketch artists, then the ponds and carefully landscaped trees and bushes and flowers and with the winding sidewalks it looks more like an amusement park than something that would be in the middle of New York and far off I hear a sax be-bop-bopping in the distance and I walk into Central Park, now moving the feet a little quicker, excited to get to my spot, and the tourists are milling about like they just stepped out of a Pissarro or Monet minus the parasols, and then my mind drifts back to second lines and a wild array of colors and the Mississippi River and brass bands and jazz and old southern white ladies and young black girls dancing hand in hand in New Orleans, but I’m not there, that’s another time, damn parasols, I’m in New York, I’m in New York and people are smoking cigarettes on benches and snapping photos and I get around the corner and see the tunnel, dark and empty, just a walkway, a musty smell and some garbage to the side and I laugh as I see my pick from a few days ago still there underneath the remains of a cigarette butt and a leaf, so I prop the stool up, take the guitar out, tune it up, throw some dollar bills and change into the case when no one’s looking, and play a tune, and, for a while, things are quiet, a few people pass by paying no attention, some point at me from a distance and speak in undecipherable tongues in curiosity and vanish before they can hear more than a few notes, but then there at the end of the tunnel is a father and his little daughter approaching, all dressed up for the zoo, and at first they’re just walking, big hand in little hand, but I switch it up, play a happy ragtime instrumental piece I wrote, thinking it’s more fitting, and suddenly she starts dancing all the way down the tunnel and I keep playing the guitar and she does a pirouette, little ballerina and all as notes fly into the air, arching and echoing against the curved old stone walls, and as I find myself a mere actor in a part of a scene far from box offices and Broadway, I realize all the writing in the world won’t do any of this justice; there is no philosophy; there are no deep, profound truths, no cleverly written, insightful words of wisdom, no metaphors or poetic rhymes or well-versed stanzas, no critical analysis with playful linguistics to file into the pantheon of lyrical prestige for scholars to discuss and file on the shelf next to dusty bottles of scotch, nothing to put this all into its particular place, nothing to vividly capture the true essence of this one moment; no, no, this is merely just life; this just is and nothing more and so with that, I tip the hat and the girl places the dollar bill into the case and the father thanks me for the music and I follow them as they drift off, under a clear blue sky, around the corner, into the crowd, and then…disappear.