The wonder of San Francisco is an integral part of my life; I’ve lived here for 9 years now. Mostly ups and downs, plateaus few and far between. I left the familiarity of the San Diego nest (not “Socal”. No one called it that, ever) for this phenomenon-behemoth of a city. I went to college here, graduated with a degree in Industrial Arts after 4 years of gymnastics on the uneven bars of sanity. Music was a constant. I was never away from a guitar that was stashed in my car, bedroom, or strategically located at friends houses so I had something to do at parties that didn’t involve small talk.
Ever since I picked up a guitar, I always had this image of sitting downtown in a metropolitan area, just playing. Even just practicing scales in public. I was always so afraid to do it for a multitude of reasons: My guitar will get stolen, someone will mug me, someone will cut my strings, the millions of dollars in my guitar case will blow away and other reasonable thoughts.
Two days ago I purchased — for the first time in my life — a book from the “New Age” section. It’s called “The Four Agreements” (It’s quite popular, but I’m knew to this game) and was a quick read. It contains much of the usual “live each day like it’s your last” parrotry, usually met with my contrarian “I hope I’m dead after all of those prostitutes, drugs, crimes, and burned bridges.” Oddly, I decided to try not saying the smarmy comeback (to myself in my head…)This book, chock full of good-natured nonsense, actually flipped a switch. Mid read, I took a post-it note, and wrote “If you could play music downtown on Thursday, would you?” and stuck it on my door frame. It was a neon pink post-it. I knew it wouldn’t clash with the see of day-glo colors in my room.
Thursday hits, just like the post-it predicts.
The post-it note is torturing my peripheral vision with its disco color sensibilities. It’s haunting. I roll out of bed, grab a guitar bag, throw in my cheap gypsy jazz copy, and start walking to a BART station. I get about 500 yards from my house and say “It’s going to be windy, maybe another day” and I turn around. I think “Dumbest excuse ever” complete the 360, and keep walking to the station.
As I sat in the BART car, whizzing deeper into the center of Liberal mecca (their words, not mine) with a guitar case between my legs, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous that this image I had played in my head for almost 15 years now, was actually occurring, and on my own accord. Build up.
I get out of the Embarcadero station and start walking towards the Piers, scouting for places to sit and play guitar in public. It’s something I have always avoided, so it wasn’t a developed skill. I walked by a street musician playing bass over some pop-tune backing tracks, and we both knowingly nod to each other. “I’m one of you,” the nod implies. I walk by the ferry building, looking for a comfortable place to sit. By comfortable, I mean anonymous enough to manage my self-consciousness in the daylight, but still a stretch of confidence to be in a place open enough to be heard. There was pacing involved. I finally found a place with a bit of wind blockage, and sat down. It was also when two pretty girls were walking by selling jewelry, and I figured I could be playing before they were out of hearing range:
The thought “I’ll play 5 miraculous notes and they’ll fight to the death over me” seemed reasonable.
I put the case down, fumbled to get a pick out of my pocket and nervously started to play. A few looks, some smiles, some Ipod volume controls turned up or down, amused infants, bemused tourists, jumpy joggers, texting teenagers, pedicab peddlers, melancholy homeless, camera fumblers, drug stumblers, workers walking home on the sunny side of the street, hippies, yuppies, gays, straights, whites, everything-but-whites, tots, kids, pre-teens, tweens, teens, youth, young adult, adolescent, adult, middle-aged, over the hill, older, old, aged, elderly, hipsters, cops, monks, whores, rich, poor, obvious, hidden.
San Francisco. You get it.
Fast forward 45 minutes no change, no money, nothing dropped in. I didn’t really care. Before I left my house, I was debating putting a “No Tips” sign in front of me as a way to brandish my sense of defiance in a city full of panhandlers.
Remembering they were all tourists, I realized I would like to take as much money from them as possible so I could continue to afford living here after they had long (in)digested their clam chowder.
Along walks a young guy carrying a music case I recognize as a clarinet. He stops for a few moments, eyeballing my gypsy guitar. Wearing jeans, a black hoodie and sunglasses doesn’t exactly scream “Django”, so I understood his possible confusion. I stop playing and say “That a clarinet?” and he says “Yea.” “You want to play something?” He obliges. We exchange about two sentences, he informs me he just got off a train from Chicago 10 minutes ago, and it’s his first time in San Francisco. He asks “You live here?” Interesting question…I’ve occupied housing in San Francisco for 9 years, so I answer with shrug “I guess I do. You know Tiger Rag?” Musicians have a certain eyeball look, like a hard drive loading information. Lights are blinking, not much is going on, but the query registers. A cock of the head to jostle the neurons into proper order, and he says “Yep”.
Before the hyperbolic part of me kicks in, I will say this: I was outmatched. He was tremendous, and I was a shaky human earthquake of anxiety trying to impress this new human. Luckily, I was struck with a wave of “Who cares! Enjoy this dammit” and happily got out of my head. The territory is familiar, comfortable, and I don’t care that this guy is the first clarinet player I have ever played music with. We just met 30 seconds ago.
Now we’re having a real conversation. This isn’t idle chit chat, this is syncopated chatter of increasing depth. This is an active discussion of the history of music, personal backgrounds, muscle memory, improvisation, assumption, expectations, rhetoric, and familiarity all conveyed without words.
In terms of actual words, there were few. Moments of verbal communication to see what we could do, and then back to it.
The set list: Tiger Rag, Stardust, Be Meir Bist Du Schoen, and a gypsy jazz cover of Let it Be by the Beatles. Total take? 7 dollars and some change.
I say thanks, hand him the money and start to pack up my guitar. He says “You staying out here? I’ve got to go.” I said “Nope, I can go home now.” He says “You do this often?” With a sly smirk I said “I’ve been planning to do this for 15 years. This is my first time, and I can cross it off my bucket list. Thanks for helping.” I gave him my business card, partially hoping I’d hear from him, partially hoping not. A truly poetic flourish to close a brief moment of friendship. I suspect he’ll be famous one day. His name was Dan, I think.
My favorite part was probably him saying “I’m a saxophone player” because I don’t like saxophone, and this would’ve been a story of musical prejudice rather than triumph.
The world is all right.