Sacked by the "downturn", an unemployed architect touring the country in a bus...

I used to live in New York City. I designed homes for the tycoons of Wall Street; Park Avenue, Scarsdale, Greenwich. It was great fun. And, after years of saving up for a down payment, I was just about to buy my own little place in Fleetwood, half an hour north of the city, when the economy fell apart. Architects are like canaries in a coal mine when the economy slows, and true to form, there were massive layoffs in firms all over the country. Devastation of the profession. So, I decided to try to find something else to do for a while. I bought a 23' school bus and I'm on the road to see if I can figure out what that might be.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hi Sam F!

I learned about you from a certain M. C. I heard you are 7, which means you are probably my youngest reader. And I understand you like buses. How wonderful! I do too. My bus...

About those 17 dollars...

First, scroll down below and read "How I made $17, fulfilled a dream, and other odds and ends... Parts 1 and 2"

How I made $17, fulfilled a dream, and other odds and ends... Part 3

More than in any other city I know, in New Orleans' French Quarter, the symbiosis between business interests and the general public gives particularly strong voice to street party life. In an area of about 10 by 30 blocks, nearly every building in both directions presents a store front on the first floor, most offering food, drinks, or browsing. There is an abundance of shops selling posters, T shirts, hats, spangles, beads and other souvenirs. There are galleries filled with "accessible" art; paintings of pretty women waking and dressing, suggesting "the morning after", a reclining nude with a sprinting cougar superimposed on her contours. It's a step above clown paintings. There are "antique" shops of similar quality. Several shops specialize in masks of the naughty, devilish harlequin kind. Along with psychics and readers, there are at least two Voodoo stores selling trinkets and potions, which seem to have something in common with comic book shops. There are, of course, tattoo parlors, for memorializing bad decisions in a permanent way. A portion of Bourbon Street specializes in porn. And everywhere, there are bars, bars, and more bars, who’s business is enhanced by a curious ordinance that permits carrying drinks out into the street in plastic cups and from bar to bar. Broken glass would be bad for business.

Between the store fronts are modest residential entry doors leading to internal courtyards which lead in turn to the apartments above. The apartments present to the streets the legendary second floor iron balconies which create a nearly continuous mezzanine lining the public way. It's as though the facades were inside out; private entries concealed within, viewing stands facing the street.

What results each afternoon and on through the night, is a town wide block party of tourists and local freaks. And on this stage I emerged with my vibraphone.

I made my way slowly down Conti street (pronounced here with a long "i"; Burgundy Street has the emphasis on the second vowel) and turned left on Royal, from which traffic is barred Weekdays 11 to 4, and weekends 11 to 7, for the benefit of buskers.

So, now I am a busker. Almost. I still have to play. Looking for a spot, and adjusting to the situation a bit, I rolled a ways down Royal Street, among only a light sprinkling of early rising tourists who meandered in the street, protected from traffic by police barricades at each intersection. No spots for me in this block. I crossed traffic to the next protected cell of Royal, and continued maybe one more. And at some point my nerves settled and I simply slowed to a stop in front of a store that was not yet open. (Was it a Realtor? A clothing store? I don’t remember.) In a somewhat trance like state, I locked my casters, slipped off my jacket and hung it on a street bollard, and took my vibraphone mallets out of their bag and laid them on the keyboard. My familiar belongings, the mallets in particular, who's rattan handles show wear and my palm oil accumulated from hundreds of hours of practice, these intimate objects seemed so small and exposed and vulnerable in this public setting. I removed my straw cap shaped hat, the one I bought on Bleecker Street in New York, the one I wore in Costa Rica and in Spain where I went to ask Isabel to come back to the States with me, and I placed it in front of my Vibraphone, wondering if this was a good distance out in front. Will it get stolen if it's further? Will people be intimidated to approach if it's too near? These are architect's questions, but now I am a busker! I seeded the hat with change and some 1's and a 5, as I had seen the pros do, and I walked back behind my vibe, and picked up the mallets, and once they were in my hands, almost unconsciously, almost as a fidget to stall an instant more, to expend three more calories of nervous energy, I struck some warm up chords and arpeggios. And that was it. I was in, like a hesitant swimmer who, after inching into the cold waves of the ocean with arms folded, trying to not let the water wet the bottom edge of his trunks, finally points finger tips together overhead and leaps in a Dolphin like arc into the momentarily icy water, and emerges to find it was warm all along. I looked around one last moment, and simply started playing. I think it was "Days of Wine and Roses", a song I have played countless times, one on which I have experimented and improvised for years, both on my new instrument and even back on my earlier traditional vibraphone.

And it was fun.

When I play, I mostly look at my keyboard and hands and what I am doing. I am completely internally focused. More accurately, I am focused on a few things. There is the melody and structure of the song. There are the technical means by which I find new lines and harmony, the rules of music theory, which require tremendous amounts of practice to master. And then, there is story telling. Music, of course, is communication, and must hold the listener. So the art of improvisation is a complicated interplay between the instantaneous imagination of the possible, and a risk reward analysis of what you can execute, all mediated to further a cogent train of thought. The learning curve to master the technical issues is so steep that the story telling is frequently neglected. Well, nothing brings to mind the importance of cogency like an audience. And so, even in this first solo performance on the street, I was immediately aware of a change in my priorities. There was no stopping; there was no trying alternative phrases. There was only live, continuous movement forward, building and swelling, or punctuating with silence, contrasting high and low, fast and slow, when it felt right. And instead of pushing to the limits of my ability as in a practice session, I found myself staying more centered in territory where I felt completely confident, so that I could afford more mental overhead to being mind full of the listeners (was anybody listening?) And in this more familiar territory, I found there was plenty of room to explore, to search for beautiful moments, and I'd feel myself "go for it" and grab a phrase from risk's clutches, and land safely beyond. And after some of these chancy moments, I heard clapping! Dare I look up to see? I didn't have to; I saw someone in my peripheral vision drop something in my hat. Hazzah! Now I am a Busker. Flushed with a smile, I'd manage to keep on playing and say "Thank you."

I think I played three or four songs. Sometimes people listened, sometimes stopping, sometimes tipping, and sometimes it seemed no one was there. I realize that my "act" (NOW I AM A BUSKER!) was missing a crucial business component. The best street performers first demonstrate their skill a bit, then set up a tease, a promise for a big finale, before which they stall, and stall, and draw on lookers, and stall, and pass the hat, and finally deliver. I think this can be done in the arc of a musical composition, and I will have to give his some thought.

After these first few songs, I needed a break and a pee. The hat had $6 profit. Whohoo! I made my way a bit further down Royal, and found a restaurant with a beautiful garden beyond a long arched passage. I asked a bus boy, Paulo, if I could park my vibe there and use the bathroom for a buck. Normally, in the French Quarter, you MUST buy something to use a rest room, but Paulo refused my dollar. Ha, I'm on the inside, now. From now on, I will enjoy the camaraderie and insider's privileges of the buskers, and waiters, and mule drawn wagon tour guides.

I thanked Paulo and continued on, rounding the corner at Saint Anne's, and headed towards Jackson Square. About mid way down the block, on my right, I met three buskers; Bruce, 40ish, who was camped on the sidewalk with a guitar and a laundry cart full of gear, Dixie Brown, a 60 something black bass player who walked with some difficulty, but spoke in a beautiful professorial way, and a third fellow who remained more distant. Bruce and DIxie were very curious about the vibes, and in a few seconds were delighted to offer advice and encouragement. “You’ll do well out there, there’s no one else playing vibes.” But, I would probably not be able to play in Jackson Square because of the territoriality of the full timers. "And you never give up your spot! I'm here until late tonight! Where were you? On Royal? That's a great spot! You never give up your spot!" I thought his bladder must be a lot better than mine, and wondered if he had a jar under the blanket in which he was wrapped. I thanked them and went back to Royal and found my spot still open. I set up and started playing again. I played a long Latin intro to "Nica's Dream" using the catchy rhythm and suspense to draw in a crowd, then I launched into the melody, and played three quarters of the repeated form as a chord solo, and finished with the melody on the last section. Clapping. Tips. And, to my surprise, there was Dixie Brown. He had followed me around the corner to size me up. "You play really well!" he said, emphasizing the last word to indicate more than politeness. I was tickled. We chatted a bit and he asked where I was staying. I told him about my bus and my cousin, in short, my transience, and he said "I have a big house in Uptown and a big driveway, and you can park there and use the shower as much as you like. Would you be interested in any gigging, like for money?" Kazowie! "Uh, sure, thanks!" I gave him my card and told him about blogspot, and we chatted just a bit more.

And then I played for another hour, made a total of $17, and I had a new friend that would lead to...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Where have you been?

It's been more than three weeks since my last post.  This will be a very quick catch up post, and I'll try to elaborate in a few posts to follow.

After Superbowl weekend, and then the finale to Mardis Gras, I felt I should move on from here, but before doing so, I needed to determine if there really is any work for me.  I spent a week formatting portfolio material, and another two e-mailing and calling.  No luck.  More on this later.  I also spent some time designing a modest upgrade to the creature comforts in my bus, and I'll post more on this later, too.

(You can click on these to get a bigger view...)







Friday, February 5, 2010

20 second post

I’m in a burb of New Orleans called Uptown, parked in front of a nice person’s house, Alicia.  She lived and traveled in buses years ago and showed me many pictures, snap shots and published, of her and her friends’ elaborate bus projects.  We’re going to a costume ball tonight (at left, finding me a costume in her house full of costumes and puppets.)

Later, at the Apocalypse Ball....

(No, I'm not in blue, I'm holding the camera.  Alicia is playing a drum, in a red traditional Mexican dress reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. 

Oh, the end of the world is in three days.  I thought I should mention it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Still here...

Hi folks, I'm still here.  It turns out that Kamp Katrina, an amazing place, presented security concerns for me.  I had some interesting conversations and was lucky to have an opportunity to make some photographs, but I am still looking for a "base camp" here in New Orleans.  I will post some further thoughts and photos after I have a chance to sort them out a bit, perhaps at my new friend Dixie Brown's place in Uptown, a neighborhood some 10 minutes or so out.  Right now, I am in CC's Comunity Coffee house in the French Quarter, waiting for Jessica to cut my hair at "Head Quarters".  And I have not forgotten about the finale to "How I made $17..." and will tell you about that, too.  (Although, as in so many stories of adventure, the climax is in the title and getting there is more than half the fun :-)

This continues to be an amazing but logistically challenging adventure.  I'll transmit again when I come out from behind the far side of the moon :-)

Monday, February 1, 2010

A new thing

I woke comfortably at about 6:30 and started right away preparing to go to Kamp Katrina, Ms. Pearl and her husband Dave's home in New Orleans, and haven for street performers, artists, and musicians.  "We host people like you for the fun of it", she wrote me yesterday.  I don't know what I will find there, but it sounds fantastic, two miles from the French Quarter, a place for my bus, and people inventing their lives.  I will have to mount larger, softer wheels on my vibraphone so I can get to good performance spots easily.  I've found what I need on line and will have Caster City mail four 6" diameter pneumatic wheeled swiveling casters, two with breaks, to Ms. Pearl's address.  I've also ordered business cards for the TriChromatic Vibraphone, my invention, the instrument I am playing, and these will be delivered to that address too.  (I placed the order on line at FedEx/Kinko's, using artwork I created on and uploaded from this computer... wonderful age.)  So I guess I'm pretty confident that it's a real address and a place I can stay for at least a week.

Leaving my home base here at Kathleen Johnson's Katrina Relief program in Poplarville, Ms. brings sadness.  There are so many wonderfully hearted people here I will miss daily contact with.  I must get on the road to Ms. Pearl's, but before I go and become overwhelmed by what ever lies ahead, I want to take time to mention just two.

I adore Kathleen and have told her many times.  She's brash, opinionated, hard to keep on one subject, and brilliant on many.  She has been truly generous to me, offering unlimited access to everything here.  "Do what ever you want" she has said to any request I had for photos, computer use, use of an office, the refrigerator...  While here, I prepared a series of plans and elevations for the construction of clusters of prefabricated MEMA cottages to be built on tall piles, above the flood plane.  The clusters will share a common stair and common lift, and will have a common deck so that neighbors in a cluster, many of whom are elderly or disabled, can socialize and share burdens and resources.  I told Kathleen that I will remain available and eager to help Bill and Julie rebuild their trailer park according to these plans.

Kathleen is a gifted leader (addressing her staff, at right) thinks about the picture large and small, and works at her relief effort 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week.  She draws no salary because she will accept no strings attached.  She lives in the old pastor's house adjacent to the converted church facility that houses the program, drives a van "in need of a little repair", and eats principally food left in the refrigerators by departed volunteers.  Last week, the program hosted a group of high school students from an affluent Jewish community in California.  Their background was quite sheltered (spoiled brats.)  On the first morning after their arrival, Kathleen swept in early and bellowed in my direction where I was writing in the the community room/kitchen, "I'm closing the kitchen and I'm closing the bathrooms."  The kids had left a few dirty dishes in the sink and some mud on the floor in the bathroom, not really an egregious first offense, but Kathleen was seizing the teaching moment.  She locked the various doors, put up printed notice, and let the kids suffer for an hour or so.  Then she convened a meeting in the kitchen and in soft tones, explained their cleaning duties for the second time.  You could here a pin drop.  And when the group was dismissed, they were transformed, quietly taking up mops and sponges and addressing their chores with intense focus.  I stuck my head into Katheen's office, beamed, and said "I adore you."

Mike, a long term "transitional resident", had survived Katrina in his trailer home, but was flipped over 4 times by the wind.  He escaped an survived by climbing out his front door which was then directly above him.  Not wanting to be blown away by the wind, he dove into a nearby pond and crouched down to leave just his head exposed above the water.  It worked.  Mike, a native of Kentucky, lost everything, except his half ownership of a some property.  Mike had previously, 1992, lost his wife in a freak accidental explosion of his paining business warehouse.  Soon, Mike's health declined, and he spiraled down, survived Katrina, and was eventually taken in here by Kathleen.  Mike has a heavy southern accent, a booming baritone voice, and is a terrific story teller with great detail, pace, and absolute frankness and sincerity about everything.  Though I can't imagine a person from a background more different than mine, I love Mike, and so I was delighted to fulfill as best I could his request for a sketch of a water wagon for his church group.

OK, I'm off to.... well, I don't really know :-)