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

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...


  1. I think you're on to something. Yup, forward motion. No question 'bout it.

  2. That is soooo cool! Good for you :-)

  3. Thanks Dawn, I'm marooned in Mississippi waiting for a repair on my truck. (It will be nice to have an emergency break, the drive train is partly disassembled and they are waiting for a part. Doh!)

    Thanks Signpainter. I often think of your prescription for success at a small goal, to break out of inaction; "Think, I'm going to get up, and cross the room, and move that pencil." Works like a charm :-)