On Street Musicians II

There is a man in my neighborhood who plays guitar on the street corner each evening in front of an optical shop, next to the Burger King. No one asked him to come here, but one day a few years ago he just appeared. He plays in all seasons—in blizzards, in rain, in the summer heat. He looks weathered. His hair is long and straggly, his face creased, sunburned and stubbled so that it looks like a totem mask, his limbs bony, and he smells of smoke. His almost tuned acoustic guitar is plugged into a small portable amplifier not loud enough to mask the sounds of his plastic pick on the strings; a cigarette is lanced onto one of the pointy string ends on the guitar neck making it look like the instrument itself is smoking. Evoking a lost Neil Young, the musician seems to have been carried forward by time without having advanced any ideas of his own.

The man is not much of a guitarist or a singer. He plays a small repertoire of now oldish rock songs like “Definitely Maybe” by Oasis and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns ’n Roses. His versions, with his strained singing and ragged strumming that reduces any song to four chords, has you wondering how it is that original songs survive their covers. The music doesn’t fit the neighborhood. Whenever a car with booming salsa or bachata drives by like a portable party—syncopated rhythms trumping classic rock chords—the guitarist’s songs are obliterated. For a moment while the party drives by the man looks like a mime imitating a musician. He makes no sound yet his gestures are intact and he keeps on singing, determined.

I see the guitarist on my way to work when the street is crowded, and then again late at night on my way home when the sidewalk is empty. Sometimes a drunk will stop and listen, cheering the musician on through first pumps and incoherent words: This is incredible! Go man! Great song! You’re performing and I’m listening! But mostly no one pays much attention. We step around the guitarist and walk right through his five by five foot sound world. Despite his intents and purposes and the smattering of change in his tip jar, the musician plays music mostly for himself.