Sun and warmth can make a world of difference. Friday in the Quarter the temperatures climbed to the low 50s, certainly buskable weather. I started off roaming the streets looking for a new likely pitch but in so doing missed out on claiming the Royal Street pitch. The breeziness kept it rather brisk and I’d left my pea coat at home so my main priority was finding a sunny spot to play – which I found just outside the Omni Hotel, with the white walls reflecting the light nicely in a warming way. The tips, however weren’t so nice. My only tip came from a cab driver waiting in the taxi line in front of me. Isn’t it interesting how many of my tips in New Orleans come from the working class while on the job? Certainly a much higher proportion than anywhere else. Many people took photos of me, again, including one slim Ugg and Aviator sporting blonde girl who videoed me from across the street. Hardened by the last day I mostly – mostly – shrugged it off. Most curiously two groups of Omni hotel patrons carried out conversations on the sidewalk directly in front of me, ignoring me except for one woman who said “I’m sorry.” as she parted with her friends. I didn’t understand what she was sorry for except perhaps their attitude towards me – which wasn’t what she meant. The other group was a set of Asian Americans I saw walking around many times, business school types entirely Americanized and babbling about many-comma-ed sums and necessarily luxuries.
A random note on New Orleans – all French is pronounced rather un-French and slips into everyday vocabulary. Beaucoup becomes bookoo and I hear it more than “very.”
With this fail pitch I wandered about a while to find a new one. I ended up back on the riverside promenade, where a guitarist secured the bottleneck by the Natchez Steamboat. Not long after I arrived I was accosted by a drunkard from Portland (who lives nearby and gave me his card and number, eventually) of fifty five years who offered to pay me five dollars to play my guitar and listen to some of my songs. Deal, I thought, and Deal I said. At this moment the steamboat started to sound with distinctly un steamboat-y noises and I turned about to see a woman playing a set of bottles above the steam chute.
As the lady played her last note a trumpeter instantly started playing a bit downriver – unrelated as busking. He played well but this tempered the rudeness none, as the guitarist by the bottleneck and easily downwind had been playing earlier and waiting patiently for the steamboat to finish. The Portland drunk took this opportunity to say “Either we’re doing this or we’re not.” and I let him play – a medley of five or six classic rock tunes to the same vaguely combination of chords, melding the disparate catch lyrics together with “While my guitar gently weeps babe, oh babe I’m gonna leave you in the house called the rising sun…” He sang passably well. He gave me no money but instead his card with his phone number and an offer to stay with him. Sketchy.
I started to walk back to the quarter past the Natchez guitarist and after I passed he called out “Girl!” and I knew he was talking to me, somehow. Not until I walked up did he realize his mistake, but I didn’t really mind. He’d been chatting (abusing the Portlander’s lack skill together) with a drunk gentleman who wanted to “jam.” Why not? He had me sing whatever song I chose, From Dawn to Busk in E maj, and followed along with some solo. Our drunkard echoed my lyrics very tunefully with some into-it clapping then borrowed the other guitarist’s instrument to play an A major twelve bar blues, which I followed as the first man sang some improvised repetitive lyrics including “I want a big fat woman.” We jammed to a song in E next where I got the chance for a few solos, and so on. Our drunkard tipped us a dollar and wished us well.
Again set to return to the quarter or at least get a move on with the rapidly cooling air, the guitarist informed me was set to leave soon, what with the chill, so I decided to stay after moving to the opposite side of the thoroughfare to face the sun. He stayed to watch for a while as I received no tips while waiting for his friend to take the bus. He chatted to me throughout, which distracted me, but left soon enough, after we agreed to meet back up the following day at noon to play together. I felt most eager to play with him and learn the art of stopping people – he explained that as how he made his money. He’d talk to passersby and get to know them “Are you married or in love?” “I have to earn that!” for single dollar tips which turns them into fives and tens and twenties he said.
A group of homeless people began to congregate to my left by the public bathroom. Again my first tips came from blue collar folks – a man moving boxes on a dolly and a set of men in greasy overalls and boots who looked the construction worker type. I recognized (and was recognized by) some of the same strollers and joggers from the Tuesday prior, who greeted me friendily but didn’t change their minds about tipping. The temperature dropped quickly and the breeze rose in inverse correlation. For some reason none of the older folks tipped this day – perhaps with a desire to keep their frail hands warm? – but showered me with smiles. After a little while I sat down to best avail myself of the sun. I always stand while playing – for stage presence and dignity, but warmth won out (and a growing tension in my right shoulder).
Some moments seem pre-ordained, or karmic, or whatever you’d like to call it. For a short stretch in the middle of my pitch I knew precisely what to play for every passerby and for those songs I got my tips. Most memorable were these. On finishing another song I saw a group of five middle/high school girls approaching and I just knew I should play Hey Ya. Upon the opening words they squeed and smiled and rushed to tip me – one each from three of them. After the first verse I asked them to sing along. One girl protested “I can’t sing!” but I assuaged her fears with an “Of course I’ll sing along” and a gentle smile. They nudged each other nervously, giggling a little as I led them through the next three verses and the first chorus. They even did a bit of the swimming arm motions. Very cute. They ran off laughing, feet lighter and swifter than before.
When a mother passed by with her child in tow I knew to sing them Hotel California which they danced to as only a mother and daughter can, with cute abandon and obvious love before embarking on a lively chase down the walkway and back up to bounce again to a chorus before tipping and skipping away. I think they took my premonitions with them. If only I could keep it, always – but maybe, like the alethiometer, it’s something that you use first by grace and then devote time and study to develop once again.
As the sense faded a homeless man with a sallow drugged face came by and asked if he’d like me to sing him a song. He sat down gratefully beside me as I sang him my most upbeat songs. “I had a real bad day, man, but I’m going to get some alcohol and feel a lot better. Do you drink? Good, man, stay that way, don’t do drugs.” For the second song he kept saying “You’re ___, man. Real ___” which I kept hearing as “bad” and felt odd. When he used other words, however, it became clear he meant something akin to “incredible.” I bid him farewell after this song as gently as I could and he walked off to speak with the group of homeless folks by the public bathroom. One song later he returned, notably changed. He mumbled incoherently in place of words. His hands scratched absently at his shoulders and his head twitched suddenly from side to side. At the middle of this next song he bowed his head between his palms with his elbows on his knees and began a dreadful retching noise. I saw later this was to expel a very, very long train of mucus from his mouth that he dumbly coaxed out until it touched the floor and as if this was a sign to bite off the top end the chain fell in sloppy off white mess between his feet. I took this as my cue to finish up for the day and packed up. Before I left I offered some kind words to him but I don’t think he heard.
Song of the Day: Hey Ya – Outkast