Vigilance, Banjos, and Teenagers

     Coming back from performing tonight, I am reminded of two things: one, is that I have to guard my case more, and two) that I have to guard my harmonica.

     The weather is about a perfect summer day as one can get. Mild weather and showers in the afternoon and evening, floated the temperature to that sort of magical zone where you could wear a t-shirt or long sleeves, shorts or jeans, and it would be natural either way. The garden finally has been coming along, as it always does around early August, where given the cool this year, the first tomatoes are arriving, despite my final surrender of the turf to crabgrass. My diet has largely consisted of zucchinis, beets and kale. I eventually broke down and bought a few cheap steaks and a chicken to throw on the grill as well. Because I don’t care what anyone says, there is only so much one can do with kale.

     It was a mild day in the music world in Fargo, my hometown. The Monday jams have more or less disintegrated, although there is always hope of revival. Yannick and Glen, staple members, actually have semi-successful bands now, and not many have stepped in their place yet, which is one reason it’s been harder to get people together. I played a bit with my friend Zach on Wednesdays. He’s a better banjo player than he thinks he is, but hasn’t realized it yet. Zach is of medium height, and about twenty-three years of age who sports long dreadlocks. He graduated from a local college, and now works on research for an energy company. He was originally from eastern Missouri, on the Mississippi, and had moved around a lot, but tends to claim west Illinois as his home. A very easy going person, we practiced folk songs, and he is a good person to work with, musically speaking. I often think of good musicians as a steadily shrinking pie chart, in which after the factors such as “Talent,” “Temperament,” “‘Are they drunk/stoned today?,’” “Do they have a girlfriend/boyfriend/job who or that keeps them out?” and “Musical taste” narrow down candidates to sliver that wouldn’t be acceptable served in a restaurant. Zach is one of the better ones, but as of yet I haven’t been able to convince him to play on the street.

     The world of street music is exciting, but more docile at the same time. I may just be used to everything amusing that happened in the past now repeating itself, but the tips and interaction do seem to be less this year. Partially, I’m to blame. Street musicians have been popping up since I began, and apparently I was competing with a lackluster banjo down the street. I am of course happy to have music downtown, happy that it allows people to enjoy their nights more and am happy that others perform. However, curse him and seven generations of his children if he got my twenties. I myself have almost gotten more reclusive as well, but it happens. Music is a weary business.

     Friday was dull much of the time. Jimmy, a nineteen year old who was wandering the street, asked to play my guitar. He was pretty nice and respectful about it, and I didn’t think he was faking. He played a bit, and I think it meant something to him. I don’t usually loan my guitar, but if I think someone is sincere about, it (and sober), I’ll do it every once in awhile. Probably the most memorable event of the night was the fight that happened in front of me, which is the sort of thing that goes on from time to time. Three people, a young white man, a young black man, and his girlfriend (the descriptions will be relevant in a moment) approached where I was sitting. By this point, it was around one in the morning, and I had my first crowd going, including a rather drunk young man and a big older fellow smoking a cigarette. I was playing “City of New Orleans.”

     The party of three approached and the white guy asked if we’d like to hear a “black joke.” Being sober and recognizing a loaded question, I turned my head and broke into a harmonica solo. He asked anyway “Why black people like soup?” (“To see crackers drown”) and the drunk man to my right took umbrage. Well, I couldn’t really tell too much of the dialogue at this point, as I continued with my song (most of the time these things blow over) but the black fellow was quite mad at the young man. As best I could tell, they thought he shouldn’t have taken offence at the joke, but in reality, they were just looking for a fight either way. The girlfriend was a bit of a mouth. A crowd was gathering, and, as commonly happens, a stranger just comes in the middle of them, preventing them from reaching each other. It is always on unusual phenomenon, they sort of just stand there and look bored, as if it’s a civic duty such as waiting in line. The black guy was ready to fight, then dropped a few dollars in my case, told me a played “beautifully” and then was ready to fight again. By this time the noise and distraction took away from the performance; then there was no point. I told the one fellow to quit it and go home, and that he was a jerk. He looked a bit hurt the music was stopping. Oh well. He did aim for it.

     Tonight was sort of an off day. I find when writing my reflections, including tonight, that it’s hard to describe my memories of performing when recalling even recent performances. I usually am in the same spot, but given how I perceive the memory, I might as well be in another world each time. Looking back, I sometimes find it hard for me to believe, for example, that the same location that I talked to a grandmother holding a baby by daylight it the same one where two middle aged men tried to rob me. My memory is quite strange in that respect, but back to my point: the foot traffic was sporadic and the people where reclusive.

     In other words, it was slow tonight. I tend to play a little more wearied, I think, and thus a good reason for “retirement” in a few weeks. Some people stopped by. A group of sarcastic teenagers liked to see if I’d flinch if they acted like they’d take the money, another guy actually got a few dollars in hand. He dropped them pretty quickly when I made it clear I’d take them back. That’s not unheard of, but two people like that in a night is unusual. The other performers haven’t had that problem yet. Of course, I got a few twenties and another kiss from a girl, so it evens out, I suppose.

     Some men with very think accents (given Fargo’s population, most likely first generation Bosnian) stopped by. Why they and others want to play my harmonica, I’ll never know but wanted to do so. I never let anyone touch that (would you? Or rather, would you want to use a street performer’s harmonica?) but when I was wearing it low on my neck one of them managed a blow, which, in colloquial terms, pissed me off. They also kept singing over me, but weren’t there long. People think I make easy money: it is, I assure you, well earned. The patience required alone is at least worth at least ten dollars an hour.

     My old friend from college dropped by and dropped a few bills, and I talked to my friend Gary for a bit. Gary, a stout, middle-aged guy with a goatee and is always wearing a baseball cap, is always nice to chat with, and I met him because he just liked being out at nights and listening to music and live performances. We chatted a bit about Island Park Jams, which he likes to come and listen, and plays. My friend Juan, another middle aged-guy who washes dishes at a nearby restaurant and gets off late, always at least says hello, and I’ll sometimes play him “Something,” his favorite song from me. Sober guys who can hold pleasant conversation, such as they, are always appreciated. Jordan, a long, blond-haired, and pleasant kid who can’t be more than twenty dropped by. He always gives a few bucks (I always insist against it, but he does). He’s a fellow street musician from down by Dempsey’s, and he’s a nice presence there. He enthusiastically declared it “his” spot now, but I was okay with that. As he put it, Glen hadn’t been there for awhile, and law of the jungle/music world would dictate it is his. I also know they’re both pretty nice, and generally like splitting the spot with people. Jordan always starts early and leaves by midnight.

     At one point, a balding man in his thirties rode up on a bicycle. He was drunk, but the sort of happy drunk. He had gotten his music cord somehow caught in his shorts in his gear shifts. He actually knew a lot of songs I was singing, and would sing along. Well, he’d sing the words, the tune is still a developing work in progress, I think.

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Ben and Peter

     He sat down cross-legged from me requested a few songs, which I obliged (he asked to play my guitar too, but I usually don’t give it out if someone it obviously drunk. They never seem to give it back). I played “Girl from the North Country” and it must have hit him in the right spot, because he started crying. He told me it was just being drunk that got over him. I felt bad for playing it, but he said it was okay. He came back later, and his friend Ben, a florist, sat down and listened until the end of the night (I finally, at this point, got the man’s name as Peter). They were the sort of audience I liked, because they knew my songs and, quite frankly, were pleasant company who didn’t scare away people. I suggested I needed one to wrap up, and Ben said “Happy Trails” which was about as good as it gets for a finale. It’s very rare that I get embarrassed not knowing the words to songs, but I’m afraid I only knew about a verse. They didn’t mind, and handshakes and farewells were exchanged. They went off to get omelets at the 24-hour diner nearby, and I went on home.

     Typing this at three in the morning is going to make me cringe later, but it is what it is. And that’s about all there is to say from the music world in my hometown of Fargo, ND.

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There actually exist few photos of me playing at my spot (at least in my possession), so I asked Ben to take this one just before I closed up for the night. I almost like it.

 

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