THE LAST BEAT
Three Days In The Life
Robert K. Lewis
Thursday 27 June 2013
Saturday, 15 June 2013, a very strange day . . . after a lot of tooling around on BART, back and forth between the 16th and 24th Street stations in the Mission, I finally landed a spot at 16th Street.
How it happened: I jumped the train at Ashby around 2:30 PM, got off at 16th and Mission. Didn’t really exit the system, just looked over the gate to see if anyone was playing there. A cellist. Sounded alright. The venue being booked, as it were, hopped back aboard a Daly City and offed at 24th, the next station down the line. Again, looked over the gate without cashing in my fare. Ricky was sitting there, near the escalator, doing his thing. His “thing” being playing mellow standards on an electric guitar. Ricky hauls a lot of gear on the train, I guess, to make these venues . . . guitar, amp, chair, tip bucket, God knows what else. Anyway, there he was with all his stuff; he looked pretty well ensconced, but I nevertheless gave him a shout-out, again not actually leaving “the system”, “Hey Ricky, how long you gonna play?” Ricky: “A long time.” OK, fair enough, he got there first, he’s got the spot for as long as he wants it. Me, I’m back on the train again, after spending a few minutes dazedly pondering: 16th and Mission or Powell? I finally opted for 16th and Mission, not wanting to face the craziness of the Powell Street station on a Saturday afternoon. Off the train again, this time I went through the gate, even though the cellist was still there. Paused and listened for a few minutes. Nice. Soothing to the savage beast. But not quite soothing enough; I climbed the long stairway out of the station, emerging into the open air for that other calming intoxicant, nicotine. A cigarette break. Smoked one, took the edge off my addiction, then back down into the station. Asked the cellist how long he planned to stay. Turns out he was just packing it up. So I got the venue, 16th and Mission, on a Saturday afternoon and by 3:30 PM was doin’ my thing, a-pickin’ my old banjo for the passers-by. Played until 4:30, then took a break and counted the take. A meager fourteen bucks. Not so great, but not so horrible, either. I chalked the low-ish numbers up to the fact that it was still relatively early in the day; things usually don’t heat up at 16th and Mission until around 4:30 anyway. By 4:35 I’m back at it, but by around 5:00 PM it is evident that things have really slowed waaay, waaay down. Instead of the usual leisurely Saturday afternoon stroll, the crowd is hurrying by with that resolute, steely look of determination etched into its collective face, determination not to be distracted by anything; and I guess if nothing else a banjo picker in a BART station is offering distraction . . . distraction, for a moment, from the relentless grind of destination; from feeling the need to be someplace else, whether it be geographically, financially, cybernetically, or emotionally; an invitation to, for a moment, for the moment, for this moment, be in the moment, be here-and-now. But the people that afternoon seemed very there-and-then.
5:05 PM, Saturday, 15 June 2013, in the Mission & 16th BART station, and only four bucks in the till . . . four bucks, plus the fourteen I’d made in the previous hour . . . eighteen bucks in an hour and a half, and the market is plummeting. At this rate, by five-thirty, after two hours of pickin’, I’ll have made a mere twenty-two bucks; that’s eleven bucks an hour, barely above San Francisco’s “living wage” of ten an hour. Twenty-two bucks, as opposed to forty or fifty; after round-trip fare from East Bay and back, about eight dollars total, I’m only gonna clear thirteen our fourteen bucks for those two hours, 3:30-5:30 PM. I almost packed it in right then. But I decided to stay on until at least 5:30; after all, the crowd usually picks up, and mellows out a bit, as the day wears on and the evening sets in. So I started up a fresh tune on my banjo; sat, played, and observed the citizenry as it crossed my path, toward and away from the trains. But the cash flow remained a dismal trickle. By 5:15, only a buck or two more . . . my depression was deepening; I mean, this is my income we’re talking about here, this is my food, this is my blood, this is my life; this indeed is my very life’s blood. And it looks like I just ain’t makin’ it . . . then two lovers walked by.
Saturday 15 June 2013 5:17 PM PST. While I was in the midst of these dark ruminations, sitting there a-pickin’ my old banjo, fee-fi-fidlee-i-ooooh, two lovers, a man and a woman, passed before my eyes. She was gorgeous, a large bodacious Polynesian sunshine of a lady, wearing a white smock-like dress in a Baja California style, with bright patterns in red, yellow, and blue embroidered on the front and back of her blouse. She was obviously happy, smiling, glad to be with her guy; her facial expression radiated warmth like the Sun, as if She, that bright ol’ gal who lives in the sky, had just descended the stairs of the 16th and Mission station into the dingy cave of the interior, strewn with cigarette butts, old BART tickets and receipts, other bits and pieces of random trash, and the occasional small, slick puddle of pigeon shit. I mean, the place lit up for a few seconds there, maybe ten or fifteen, as she passed in front of me. And her man—truth to tell, I hardly noticed him. He appeared Hispanic, wearing jeans and sneakers and a dark blue shirt and windbreaker. He had dark hair, medium length. That’s all I saw; the girl’s radiance blinded me. But she was all over him: she held is hand; she leaned in close and kissed him on the cheek; she ran her fingers through his hair and then put her arm around him; I felt he was one lucky dude, to have such a gorgeous star of a girl so obviously pleased with him. She looked over and smiled at me, too. Then they were climbing the stairs, the Sun re-ascending from the station to that upper world of light, she put her arm around him again and he finally responded to her affections, putting his arm around her as well, and soon they were out of sight, up and out of the crypt-like station, where the great worms crawl and grind and blow the strange, nether-wind of chaos, weird weather of the underground, back, back into the upper world, the world of sunshine and real rain and fresh breezes, of flowers and trees and women and men. 5:25 PM. Gloom soon descended upon me again. I looked down at the pie tin I used for a cash tray. Someone had dropped in two more dollars while I was stunned by that girl’s brightness. Eight bucks an hour, the current spot (T + 0) value of banjo music on the 16th and Mission Street Market. I started to drown in a flood of frustration and despair. My efforts seemed pointless. I mean, if you only make $11.00 an hour for two hours and it costs you $8.00 to do it, what is the point? I decided to quit, at least for the day if not for good. I mean for good, for good. Quit trying to cull some remuneration, some appreciation, out of these iron masses. Get away from this unreciprocated expression of emotion. Christ! I could die doing this, seriously. The place suddenly seemed frigid; I thought of Robert Hunter’s words, “In the heat of the sun, a man died of cold.” Quit. Just schlog my government dole into some el cheapo, subsidized apartment complex and stay home, sit in a lawn chair on the crabgrass and play to whoever wanders by on the sidewalk; quit trying to make a living as a musician; quit trying to be a musician; quit trying to be. I started to pack up my gear, maybe for the very last time. At that moment a new wave of people came through the gates; a train must have just come in. Decided to give it one last shot for the day, to see if I could increase my meager take by two or three bucks more. Quickly pulled my banjo back out of its case, got to work. Felt like shit. A couple of young dudes stopped to listen. Looked to be in their early twenties. They were obviously enjoying themselves. I finished the song. One of them flipped me a single. I was being polite, saying my thank-yous, when the other guy reaches into his wallet and drops a fuckin’ double sawbuck in my tin. My mood did a back-flip; elation flowed over me like the mabul of Noach. I was suddenly really happy, effusive, “Daddy’s gonna love one and all.” I had just gone from making eleven to fourteen or fifteen an hour. Enough cash to buy gas, eat well that night, and then some. I decided to take a short break; I went upstairs for a smoke. When I returned, twenty-five or so minutes hence, it was just about six o’clock. Decided to push my luck a little further. Money started flowing in spontaneously, effortlessly, generously. I noticed the crowd was visibly different—relaxed, strolling easily, breathing, enjoying the evening. The mood had done a one-eighty in a matter of minutes. By six-fifteen I had picked up ten dollars more. One woman dropped a couple singles on me and said, “Please don’t stop playing the banjo!” “I won’t, lady, if I don’t starve,” I thought to myself. But I decided it was a good time to knock off for the day. I had made $53.00 in two hours and fifteen minutes, averaging a decent $23.56 an hour. But getting there—what an emotional joyride! If I could only do that consistently, my life would get one hell of a more livable—livable: better food, better clothes, more gas money, a safer place to stay, better medicine for my head—medical marijuana, one might even call it head-icine. I blew into town last November with nothing but a school bus and a banjo, thinking I could cruise my way through Frisco like some latter-day Japhy Ryder—good old Japhy, Kerouac’s rendition of Gary Snyder from his novel Dharma Bums—Japhy, thumbing in with backpack and Buddhism books, finding an East Bay/West Bay of cheap rents, quick jobs and artistic/intellectual soul-mates, of live poetry and live music; Christ! that was, like, fifty-five years ago! Am I still an seven year-old beatnik living in 1958 or what? Today it’s a city of homelessness and high-priced housing, cafes and bars featuring karaoke and internet radio—more cost effective than live musicians—and of ear-bud connections to the cloud . . . What was I thinking, that I’d just land in Frisco like Columbus and claim my share of the terrain? Without employment, a place to stay, a network of connections? I’ll never pull a Kerouacian stunt like that again . . . I hope. Such notions passed through my weary brain as I packed up my banjo for the last time—that day. Still, I went home, back to the East Bay, back to my bus, back to the Caffe Mediterraneum for dinner and camaraderie, feeling like I had done reasonably well, like I could go forward toward a more stable existence. A weird, weird, weird, weird day.
Saturday 22 June 2013, another strange afternoon at 16th & Mission. A similar pattern as the previous Saturday, but the highs and lows weren’t as pronounced. A more even cash flow. This time my rescue angel came in the form of a waiter. It was getting late, I wanted to head out, the take was a little on the slow side; I mean, I was doing alright, but needed a few bucks more to go home feeling cozy about things. It’s like six thirty-ish; the crowd is pretty thin. I’m slowly pickin’ away, contemplating my fate, when this guy dressed in a waiter’s outfit comes out of the gate. Black pants, black shirt, black socks, black shoes, a black apron. The plastic case of a wine list or note pad for taking orders showed its top half out of one of the pockets on the front of the apron. The guy looked so ready for business—he must have been headed in to work. As he hurried by I realized hungry I was, how much I wanted something to eat. “Hey, I’d like to place my order now,” I joked at him, as if his restaurant’s service extended right into the station. His response was to kick me five bucks before I knew what was happening. My day was made, once again I packed it up and headed homeward with an adequate supply of dinero to last a day or two.
Monday 24 June 2013. God-damn me if it didn’t happen again! And on a Monday no less! And at 16th and Mission! That station must be my sweet spot! Saturday’s take was mostly gone by Sunday night—I took Sunday off and tried to get some writing done—so I woke up Monday with a measly $7.00. Barely coffee money; I hate starting the day—the week—with so little cash in pocket. So hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work I go, one more time. Today I left for the City a little earlier than usual, hoping to be able to call it a wrap and head home by maybe six-ish, in time to get to the shower at the Willard Pool on Telegraph when it opens at 8:00 PM. So I’m on the train by 1 PM; I decide to hop off at Powell and check it out; sometimes Powell has a good crowd in the early afternoon. I plunked down at one of my usual spots—in the second rotunda east of the main entrance, between the BART and MUNI booths, in front of a sign advertising the latest cell phone or a new movie release or some such artifact of pop culture. Picked for an hour, picked up ten bucks. Slow going. Switched spots to the next rotunda eastward; that’s often a pretty good place. But not that Monday; after another hour I had only culled another four dollars. OK, fourteen bucks in two hours; banjo music and vocals are tumbling to a mere $7.00/hour on the Powell Street Exchange. After a few minutes of mental/emotional bumbling, trying to figure out what to do, stay at Powell in hope or head on to greener pastures, I opted for busting out one of the $1.75 BART tickets I keep on hand for hopping between nearby stations and jumped a Daly City heading for Mission and 16th, one more time. By now it’s just past 4:00 PM and I’m wondering if that venue will be open when I get there. I get off the train and climb the stairs, ears open for strains of someone else’s music, a sign the spots are taken. I hear nothing but the noises of the milling crowd and the trains, a good omen. I reach the main gate and peer over into the foyer of the station. No musicians in sight, just a few folks wandering about back and forth near the ticket machines. I cash out my fare and exit the system; in a few minutes I’m set up near the escalator. About 4:30 PM according the display on the ticket booth; my phone concurs. I have at it; by 5:00 I’ve gleaned about ten singles. Encouraged, I persist. About ten after five a little girl toddles by with her mom in tow. Mom is obviously enamored of banjo music, encouraging her daughter’s innate curiosity—little kids are always curious about the banjo. I break into Itsy Bitsy Spider. Mother and daughter are lovin’ it! They hang out for several minutes, enjoying the show. Mom reaches into her purse for a buck, is in the process of handing it to her daughter, when a tall black-haired dude, dressed in black jeans and a black, long sleeved dress shirt, stops, whips out a ten spot, and tells the little girl to put that in my pie tin! Plus the dollar mom gave her, plus mom kicked down another buck on her own account, Cha-ching!!! Now while all this is happening a major train load of folks starts to pour out of the ticket gates like the spill over the Grand Coulee Dam when the thick snow melts in a warm, warm spring. Suddenly a cresting wave of humanity was building itself up right behind the little girl and her mom, standing/dancing as they were in the middle of a major channel through which the stream of disembarking passengers flowed on their way from the gates to the escalator and stairs. Like a rising tide the mass of people grew; some seemed to be a little disconcerted, as if they were wondering in surprise why their normal, routine exit of the station was disturbed. At the head of this knot was a large-ish dude who looked like he was dressed for business, but casually so: blue blazer, grey slacks, a graph-paper shirt (large squares), thick grey hair combed straight back. He looked down at the cause of his impediment, a curious expression on his face. When he saw what was happening, he quickly reached into his pocket and threw down a wad of bills—four or five bucks, I reckon. Somehow this gesture released him to go forward, and with his passing, the entire group began to flow again, as if a boulder had been removed from the bed of a stream. Taking his lead, the assembled citizenry contributed generously to my welfare as they cleared the obstacle I had in part created. For the next twenty or thirty seconds, many bills were shed by the crowd into my waiting receptacle. Soon the knot had cleared, Itsy Bitsy Spider came to a close, madonna and child departed after a few gracious words. I looked down into my pie-tin: there was too much cash to easily eyeball an estimate of the take; but when I did the count, there was thirty-five or forty bucks in there, most of it proceeds of that little song and dance number. I actually made forty bucks in that single hour between 4:30 and 5:30, about thirty of it between 5:00 and 5:15. Forty bucks, one hour; not huge money, but the best single hour I’ve had since I’ve been playing in the San Francisco Bay area.
Robert Kenneth Lewis