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2007 08 23
Gutter Music

People used to drop sandwiches in my case. One time, this nice old lady asked to buy me dinner.

“Come on, lady,” I said. “Do I look like a charity case? Do I sound like I’m begging?”

I have never panhandled. Never have, never will. Some couldn’t tell any different, though. Between playing my sax on the street and panhandling.

Not quite playing, really. Practicing. For five or six years, just east of Spadina at Queen.

Pathetic? Might have been. But not panhandling. Not begging. Never asked anyone’s spare change for the privilege of hearing me practice. Doesn’t matter how pathetic my sound was. Even the saddest busking is nothing like begging.

Another time, this bunch of teeny-bumpers and trampers were going by. All made out in their Friday night worst Queen West drags. “Go home, poser!” one of them shouted my way. “We know what those roller-blades cost.”

Yeah. Nice blades. That’s how I got myself downtown and back. “Kid, you really got me,” I replied. “You have seen through my disguise. You have penetrated my costume.”

What was I to try and explain? That the blades had been a gift? That I wasn’t even out to get down and desperate? That there was no helping getting grimy sitting on the sidewalk hours on end – drying in the sweat of blading from The Junction with a sax on my back?

No point. No use explaining differences between buskers’ performing and how bums make spectacles of themselves. No stopping people projecting their own motives all over everyone else. So they thought I was one of them – except old. Too senile to scuff my blades properly. As if I’d forgot tearing designer tags off pre-ripped jeans or gangsta’ duds my parental units bought me. So what?

Thing is, buskers and panhandlers don’t get along so well. Like that one night this kid armed with bucket and drumsticks came banging along. Not half bad. And then he says, “Let’s go down to Richmond.”

“What for?”

“What you make here,” he asked. “Maybe fifty to a hundred?”

“Yeah, like that,” I said. Drummer-boy knew his stuff.

“There’s one spot at Richmond, you’ll make two to three hundred. Guaranteed,” he resolved. All excited.

I totally didn’t feel like abandoning my Queen West spot. But I packed up and followed to Richmond anyhow. Curiosity and his excitement got the best of my caution. And sure enough, across from that absurd square in the air theatre, there was this building the step-up to which formed a natural small stage. “Natural”, that is, as in artificially ideal – not like any birds were twittering or any water was falling. It was all clubbers and movie-goers crowding Richmond that hot, pheromonally acrid summer night.

No sooner we got jamming, though, this big, farmer-from-Toronto panhandler runs up. Brass-cup in hand – no kidding. Runs right up. Aggressive as dogs out of junkyards. “You’re mowing my grass, assholes!”

Drummer-boy, he launched right in panhandler’s face. “Yeah, retard? Yeah? Where’s your name engraved? Where?”

Went back and forth like that a few minutes. Who’s mowing whose grass. Who was there first and last. Who was where, when. And their ancestors before them. Whose ancestry was least legitimate. Went back and forth long enough for what seemed every reveller that part of Richmond to come gawk the free entertainment. I was unlacing my blades when panhandler got wailing on drummer-boy. And it looked real bad for drummer-boy until he brought those drumsticks he’d been holding in his fist down. Brought them drumsticks down on panhandler’s forehead.

Everything stopped. Including traffic as corner lights blinked red. Everything halted like a hitch in the Richmond summer night breathing. One moment of stillness and silence –to figure out, perhaps, what such oddly muted splashing of wood on flesh and bone might mean. What it signified. Then, as lights changed and traffic surged, the crowd shifted internally. Some craning viscerally too forward while others, noting drops of blood spattering their clothes, retreated.

Panhandler, shuffling now, advanced on drummer-boy. His eyes had gone from rabid to mostly puzzled, though. He needed more time to figure it out. Drummer-boy, however, understood just fine. Drummer-boy was nimble, he was quick – knew the heft and meaning of his drumsticks. And with panhandler’s fist and brass cup flailing after his face, drummer-boy leapt like a stork. Straight up. And brought his drumsticks down on panhandler’s head again.

Now the crowd began turning away. Turning like stomachs now that the bleeding wasn’t in drops any more. Realizing how anything might happen at night on the streets. How fast. Probably to someone else. But maybe not. Maybe not just at night.

I was almost done unlacing my blades. Hadn’t rushed as much as I should have. Wasn’t completely clear in my mind how to go about separating them. Had one notion buzzing around that, in just this case, never might be better than late. “Better”, that is, as in safer – for me. Not like I wasn’t going to – just why I hadn’t rushed as I should have.

Panhandler resumed his advancing. But not pistoning fast as the first time. Nor flailing wild as the next. Somehow more like swimming. Like his airspace converted partway to liquid. Even his eyes were swimming. And replacing the former stream of death threats from his mouth was an organic sort of sound. A sound impossible to recall as severe personal injury.

Not much telling left. Drummer-boy backed from panhandler’s advance, reached back and smashed his drumsticks forward. Teeth sprayed out. Drummer-boy backed up farther, turned, and walked away – with panhandler weaving steadily after. Whatever crowd remaining dispersed. I laced my blades and packed my sax. Like something back from its grave, Panhandler returned. Last I saw, he was groping the gutter for his teeth.

Buskers and panhandlers aren’t much alike. Don’t always get along. Better not to confuse them for each other. Far more important, though, is this. All out on the street – whether panhandlers, buskers, scavengers, criminals, addicts or saints – have their own, particular reasons for being there. Their own unique stories. And far more important than not mistaking them for one another is not assuming to know who they are in the first place. For there’s no helping anyone when we make dogmatic ideological assumptions. That’s when we endanger everyone. When we become too sure we know even to hear their stories.

Hell. On or off the streets – regardless – it’s not like most are able telling their own stories. Who they are. What they’ve stood and fallen for. What has broken them. It takes some hard listening, hearing each other’s stories. It takes work. And even when we listen, it can take years between hearing someone’s story – and understanding it.

That’s how it was with my friend Jack. Started jamming with me one night. Barely qualified as a busker. Did far better than me in terms of audience appreciation, though.

“If you think my song don’t suck, go ahead and throw a buck!” he’d yell. Then, he’d get up, stand in the way of passers-by and, strumming most discordantly, yell, “If you think I’m a total loony, go ahead and throw a toonie!”

Most did throw toonies. Not all due to intimidation, either. I could tell that, like me, they admired his character. His spirit. His pluck if not his plucking.

I’d see Jack once, maybe twice each week. And each time, no fail, he’d ask, “Buddy, you know any love songs?” I didn’t do songs – never mind love songs. Like, what’s love got to do with anything? But Jack, he tried to set me straight. Love, he’d tell me, was what it all came down to. Wasn’t no point living in any world without love.

Pretty embarrassing. “Lovers!” he’d yell when couples passed. Off he’d go after them, composing yet more stupid silly love songs on the fly. And, however absurd his songs, he’d almost invariably get offered bills. Which, entirely invariably, he’d turn down. “It’s not about money,” he’d say. “Only be stout hearts, and your love shall be forever.” Embarrassing? Just about nauseating.

But my opinion of Jack could not plummet far. I had to admire him. Before and yet more so after he showed me his artificial leg running all the way down from his hip. Something about a heroin deal gone bad years back. But he was alright – had long since been in remission from heroin. He was doing fine, had himself a part-time day job – not that he needed it with how well he was doing busking.

Except, next time I saw Jack, he was barely able to hobble. Too much joking around with the cops, he told me. They had him in a cell overnight, he said, and, while there, injured his good leg. Time after that I saw Jack, he wasn’t even able to sit. Kept falling over sideways. No longer in remission from the heroin. No longer busking. My friend had turned panhandler.

Only saw Jack a couple more times after that. Couldn’t last – not at the rate he was deteriorating. Fast and irrevocable. Like any animal on its last legs and failing. He was killing himself. And I did not want to see it. Last time seeing him, I told him so. That I admired him and cared about him. Asked if he might do me the favour of not making me watch while he killed himself.

“Don’t worry, man,” he mumbled. “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want. But I won’t stay in a world without love.”

That was the last I saw Jack. But it was years before I understood how literally he’d meant it. How overtly he elected not to remain in this world without love. And more years still before my realizing how we’re all like that. Maybe not as uncompromising in our principles as Jack had been in his – the one about not living in any world without love. Still. Even if just a little. We’re all principled. We’ve all got our reasons. Our own stories. Who we are. What we’ve stood and fallen for. What idiosyncracy may break us – as opposed to everything we don’t even notice. What we live for. What, sometimes, like Jack, we’d die for. For – or against.

We’ve all got our reasons. Our own unique stories. And, far too often, we’d rather not know. Neither our own stories nor anyone else’s. Like I didn’t want to know what it meant when Jack turned panhandler. How and why he would do himself in.

Let’s face it. We’ve been seeing and hearing it the past couple weeks. Toronto can’t deal with panhandling. Totally shrinks from panhandling. The way Toronto shudders when confronted by panhandling totters institutions and dims streetlights. Panhandling has got Toronto leaping at its own shadows.

When panhandling blocks sidewalks, Toronto looks away. Toronto struggles desperately to not know. Ears stopped, gaze firmly averted, Toronto retreats to ideology. Retreats to pretending there’s nothing personal. No personal reasons. Just impersonal economic causes.

Those blaming society for keeping panhandlers from humane means of production call for subsidizing ever greater Toronto public shelter industries. Those blaming panhandlers for illicit, antisocial means of production call for increasing police intervention. Neither calling ever helps. Rousting from point to point isn’t helping. Herding in public shelters so exacerbates indignity – few would not rather risk going out to sleep in the snow.

When it comes to (not only) panhandling, our poverty is not in means of production. It is in production of meaning. That’s our trouble. How we turn away. How we’d rather not know the stories. The way we retreat to ideology. We don’t want to know what panhandling means. We don’t want to know who panhandlers are, who they have failed to be and why. Absolutely not if it entails getting personal with them.


[Images copyright Richard Danielli. Used with permission.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 08/23 at 11:44 AM

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