A musician works to build community, and a life, on the streets
I lean back against the black stone pillar behind me, inhaling the smell of hot street food. My stomach growls loudly. A smoker then saunters past, leaving the suffocating smell of a cigarette behind, and I’m no longer hungry. As I see more tourists heading down the station platform, towards where a train is roaring to a stop, I pick up my guitar and begin to play a little melody. Strumming, plucking, picking, chucking. Someone drops a five in my open case, and I smile, nodding gratefully. Well, there’s dinner.
This is how I spend my days. I have my little routine: Wake up, fold my scrappy blanket, pull out my guitar, put the case in front of me, and play. If I make enough for food, I’ll have lunch or give some to Red, then play some more. I try to spend any money I make so it won’t be stolen. I think that most pity me, but I really don’t mind my lifestyle. I get along. Music is really what keeps me entertained, and sane. The beat-up guitar I found in a dumpster, case and all (lucky, I know), is by far my favorite possession (and, other than clothes, my only possession). I’ve been playing guitar for as long as I can remember. Red, another street musician and my best friend, taught me how to play when I was eight or so, when my mom left. I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m pretty good. Or maybe it’s just the BART station acoustics.
But one day, my little routine changed. I came up with a tune I liked, and built on that throughout the chilly morning. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one that liked it, considering the mounds of green piling up in my guitar case. I was getting ready to go get myself a hot dog at the stand outside when I got the funny feeling something bad was about to happen. When you live on the street, you experience this feeling often, but know better than to ignore it. I looked around and saw a black-hooded figure behind me. However, he wasn’t middle-aged, buff, and intimidating like I would have thought. Instead, he looked like a lanky teenager who hadn’t yet grown into his legs, wrapped in a Goodwill coat three sizes too big.
I knew what he was going to do, so I turned around and kept playing, acting oblivious. Before I could make a plan, though, he crept in front of me, snatched two handfuls of my money, and sprinted down the platform. He was fast, but I was faster. On my feet in a flash, I bolted, my arms pumping, and tackled the undersized thief. Because of the momentum, we rolled over a few times. He unsuccessfully tried to escape from my grip. I had him pinned.
Most would have judged him for stealing, but most also haven’t gone about their day not knowing when they would be able to eat next.
When I finally got a look at his face, the sick, sinking guilt I felt made me wish I had just let him go. He looked just a year or so younger than me, maybe fourteen or fifteen. His rugged face was encrusted with dirt, blue lips cracked, and his brown eyes were wide and scared. Keeping my grip on him, just in case, I stood both of us upright.
“What’s your name, man?” I asked, trying to sound sure of myself.
“Chase. Please don’t hurt me!” he answered, trembling. The poor guy looked terrified.
“Nice to meet you, Chase. My name is Pick, and I’m not gonna hurt you. As long as you don’t try to run, okay?” I loosened my hold on his arm slightly. His face softened.
“So, how about you give me back that money, and we can go get some hot dogs?” I suggested. He nodded quickly, so we headed up the stairs.
Chase ate as if he’d forgotten what food tasted like. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” I questioned.
“Three days, I think,” he responded quickly in between bites. I gave him a bit to finish eating, then I began again.
“I’m assuming that’s why you wanted my money—for food.” I gave him an inquisitive look. I could see the hesitation on his face, so I gave him a friendly nudge. “It’s okay. I know,” I gestured at my few worn belongings. Most would have judged him for stealing, but most also haven’t gone about their day not knowing when they would be able to eat next.
“Yeah, I was hungry,” he finally answered. “I thought so.”
We both stared at the floor for a while after that. The marble that was once pristine white is now filthy, the edges of the tiles stained yellow. An idea came into my mind.
“Do you play guitar? Sing?” I asked. Chase gave me a puzzled look, then shook his head.
“You wanna stick around, learn how?” I continued. He stared at me blankly.
After a moment, though, he nodded slowly.
Over the next few weeks, my routine changed yet again. I taught Chase something new every day on guitar. He was a fast learner, and he loved to play. I introduced Chase and Red too, and they got along great. Both of them love the Warriors and old rock music. And, soon enough, he was playing some pretty complicated stuff on my old guitar. We would take turns playing and singing. Although neither of us were very good at singing, we were having so much fun that we did anyway, as loudly as we could. Sometimes we would even get creative, using the guitar case like a drum. This new little duet was as much to the tourist’s enjoyment as to ours. The cash piled in. For the first time in a long time, my stomach was full.
I was happier than I had been in a long time. I had Red and Chase, and I got to spend all day making music with them. I could afford better food, I was healthier. However, I still felt like something was missing. This was a foreign feeling for me, since I had, ironically, always felt secure. The street was my home, and it wasn’t perfect, but I was content. Then it was different. Although the change was for the better, it still unsettled me.
“You okay, Pick?” Chase asked, looking concerned. I snapped out of my trance. Nodding, I rubbed my tired eyes. Then I looked at Chase, and I decided what we should do.
“Hey dude, no offense, but your clothes are pretty grimy.”
“I live in the Civic Center BART Station. Can’t afford Gucci,” he said sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “Plus, I could say the same about you.”
“How about we take what we made yesterday and go to the Salvation Army store?”
We dropped off the guitar with Red, then headed to the Salvation Army. With the $45 we made yesterday, we each got a T-shirt, a coat, and a pair of pants. We were laughing at ourselves, two street kids walking down the road holding big shopping bags, when we both stopped. An average-looking restaurant stood in front of us. It had always been there, but what had caught our attention was the sign out front. It read LOCAL BAND/MUSICAL ACTS WANTED — NO PRIOR GIG EXPERIENCE NEEDED, IF YOU PLAY OR SING, GIVE US A RING! To anyone else, this would have been a typical American restaurant that is probably also a health code violation. But to us, it was like a fantasy, a dream. Chase and I glanced at each other, then walked into the restaurant.
The hostess at the front gave us a funny look (not surprisingly—we didn’t necessarily look very professional) but brought us to a back room anyway when we asked about the gig. The manager was a very short, very plump man with kind eyes and a big grin. We talked to him for about five minutes, and I played him a little something on the guitar he had.
“You’ve got the job, kids,” he smiled. “Can you start tomorrow night?” “I think we can fit it in,” I said.
An hour before we were supposed to be at the restaurant, we went into the station bathroom to put on our new clothes and wash our faces to the best of our abilities. When we showed up, Paul, the manager, showed us how the microphone worked. I was a little nervous that people would think that we didn’t belong there, with our shabby clothes and questionable vocals. But when I began to play, and the sound of my guitar filled the room, I knew that this was exactly where we belonged. Strumming, plucking, picking, chucking, I played the intro of a song we had been working on. Chase’s voice broke when he began singing, but he kept going, and I thought he had never sounded better. Everyone loved us.
We kept going, and people took videos, applauded, and even sang along when they recognized a song we played. The way music connects humans will never cease to amaze me.
Two hours later, I had more money than I had ever seen at once in my hand. But that wasn’t even why I couldn’t stop grinning. I had just had the best day of my life, and Paul said he wanted us back again the next night.
I thought that the whole restaurant gig was going to be a one-or two-time type of thing. But now, being paid for doing what I love alongside my best friend, I think it feels more like a forever type of thing.