I see the guitar case first, full more of hope than of the hard currency of shining coins. The kid sits on the pavement, half-hidden in the shadow of a low granite wall. He’s doing a pretty fair rendition of Hey Joe, working a beat-up acoustic guitar. The thing needs new strings, but he’s getting it done. That strange magic, the universal language of rock lyrics, washes away the kid’s Austrian accent. The chords walk down the neck, Joe kills his woman, the crowd ignores the kid.
Behind the grey wall, broad stairs lead down to the U-Bahn, down to the platforms of the U-3 line. The stairs make a handy escape route if the Polizei come wandering by. The busker can flip the guitar case closed in an instant, money and all; be down the stairs before the cops get close.
It is the same strategy used by the three-card monte crew at Westbahnhof, the next stop up the line, except they are not working solo. The dealer has two lookouts and a shill, always. They rotate positions, but the crew is always the same. I watch them work it, enjoying the art with which they clip the guys that are too smart for their own good; guys that think they are smarter than the game. One whistle from a lookout and the whole show vanishes like smoke on the wind. I’ve watched them do it; it’s magic.
Deep beneath the wide promenade of Mariahilfer Straße, the U-3 trains rumble and screech, silver moles boring into the bowels of the old city. The busker sits against his wall, working the chords, hanging the lyrics out there in front of the passersby. Busy Viennese shoppers hurry past the kid’s open case, more intent on the next trendy shop than on some old Jimi Hendrix song.
On warm spring days, this is the kid’s spot. He could do worse. A broad walking street, plenty of foot traffic, and shoppers with loose coin. When the icy-grey of winter wraps Vienna in its cold embrace, I see the kid down in the U-Bahn stations. He likes the acoustics in the long Karlsplatz tunnel, but then there are the U-Bahn security guys to watch for. They don’t appreciate buskers.
The noon sun illuminates the gleaming storefronts. I need a coffee and a cigar. My brain is reeling from two hours of German grammar, pummeled by a barrage of ever-changing articles. I am the lone American in the half-circle of my fellow students; Auslanders all, struggling towards a residency title. We all want to stay in Vienna; Albanian, Bulgarian, Russian, Iranian, all of us. If you want the title, you learn Deutsch.
My pace slows, a Euro coin ready in my hand. The kid’s sharp eyes catch the disturbance in the sea of legs. His face shifts up, lean, young. Maybe he is eighteen, maybe twenty-two; I can’t tell anymore. His eyes register me, a mental tumbler falling into place. Old guy, Auslander, good for a coin. Maybe he remembers me, maybe not. He should remember me; he’s into me for at least ten Euro by now, maybe more. The busker’s face is neutral, carefully so. Scraggly brown hair falls around his ears. The body of the guitar is his shield, protecting his slight frame from the feet of the crowd. The angle of shadow guards his back. His hands are white in the sunlight; thin finger bones moving over the strings. He looks at me, but he does not miss a beat. Thumb sliding up and down the guitar neck, he tries to thump out the turnaround, the low-E string rattling against the crappy frets.
The coin slips from my hand, two-toned, silver and copper flashing in the sun. It hangs in the light, suspended, arrested in its descent to the open case. The kid is frozen in the slightest nod of acknowledgment. He will offer no more. He doesn’t know me, doesn’t want to know me. Drop the coin and move on. Don’t hustle me, don’t talk. All in a moment; the coin hanging in the air, the kid looking up at me.
Time resumes; the coin plummets. It hits the worn, plush bottom of the case with a dull ring of promise. That faint ring sends a secret signal to the pavement. The flat stones beneath my feet tilt, open up, swallow me. I am gone, falling away from everything. The guitar case flashes past my eyes as I disappear through the pavement.
Images swirl around me, flickering snippets of shaky film. I am falling, but not so fast as to bring on panic. No, not falling, rather descending; a vertical shaft leading far below the twin tunnels of the U-3. The darkness is punctuated by glowing images, scenes I cannot make out. Then it stops. I am enveloped in a wet heat, blinking in the sunlight. I am sitting on the cracked pavement of a sidewalk, a wrought iron balcony above me. There is a guitar in my lap.
New Orleans, the French Quarter; tourists sweating in the narrow streets. The humidity is a hammer wrapped in worn velvet. The neck of the guitar feels clammy against my left hand. My right hand is draped across the scarred body of an old Yamaha acoustic, a guitar long gone forty years or more. The remnants of a song drift away up Royal Street. I must have just finished playing something. Two dimes and a penny shine in the bottom of my open guitar case. Not enough to amount to anything useful.
Two sets of feet stop in front of my guitar case, one large, the other small; a man and a boy. I look up into the man’s face. It is red in the heat, glistening with a sheen of sweat. The face of the boy hovers in front of me, his eyes solemn. He is maybe four years old, a small boy; his hand reaching up to disappear under his father’s meaty fingers. He looks up at his father, checking to see that everything is okay. I see the father squeeze the child’s hand. Those solemn eyes drop back to meet mine.
Hey Kid, can you play a song for my son? The man’s voice is deep, rumbling.
I try a smile, break away from the boy’s eyes, look up. The man is staring down at me, waiting.
Sure, I’ve got one I think he’ll like. My left hand slips into an open C-chord, right hand fanning the tarnished strings. Puff the Magic Dragon; simple, three chords, a song for little boys. I run through an intro, then start the lyrics of the first verse. The boy’s eyes go wider when I begin to sing, but he does not smile. I drop into the song, trying to make it sweet, hoping I can remember all four verses.
I am into the first verse, the line about little Jackie bringing worthless treasures to the dragon. The boy hears that, a tiny smile starting at the corner of his mouth. I see the dad smiling as well, happy that his kid is happy. I get to the second chorus, see the boy’s hand swinging ever so slightly. I know I’ve got him now. The rest of the lyrics tumble into my head, no problem. The sad bit doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Maybe he just doesn’t understand. Good thing; I don’t want to make the kid cry. I manage a little flourish at the end, a quick fill stuck in without thought. My voice holds the last word, breaking the syllables into individual notes, giving them a bit of a quaver. Then it’s done.
The father laughs, swinging the boy’s hand in his. He is looking down, the boy looking up at him. Did you like that, Jack? The little boy nodding his head, smiling. Okay then, here you go Kid. You have a good day. Two worn dollar bills float down into my guitar case as the man turns away, the boy in tow.
My eyes take in the two crumpled bills; a beautiful green promise against a backdrop of black plush. There is no one else on the sidewalk, no one close enough to snatch the promise away from me. I watch the backs of the man and boy growing smaller. I wait until they have moved off a respectable distance. My hand darts into the case, grabbing the bills, folding them into my shirt pocket. I scoop up the meager coins, rising to my feet. The coins slip into the pocket of my jeans; the guitar fits into the case. Snap, snap, the case is closed. I am on my feet and moving, walking away without looking back.
One block up Royal, past St. Peter, I turn left on Orleans. It is a good day. I am going to eat, and money to spare. Crossing Bourbon Street I keep my head down, avoiding any eye contact with the beat cops. Three blocks up Orleans I come to Burgundy. There is the sign: Holmes’ Rest. & Bar — Pabst — Good old-Time Flavor.
I slip through the front bar, trying to be small, not bump anything with the guitar case. The place smells wonderful, thick with stale beer and still staler smoke. The old men are already propped on their stools. I make it to the back-room kitchen before any of them can take notice of me. Not that they would. Not that they care. Skinny white boy with a beat-up guitar; he ain’t going to buy no drinks.
Clouds of steam rise from huge pots atop the long bank of industrial stoves; red beans simmering since early this morning. I wedge the guitar case under the battered plywood counter and take a stool. The skin of formica covering the counter top is worn from generations of elbows; rough plywood shows through the erosion. The room is long, narrow, and hot. I can smell the back-alley through the open windows. The baked brick heat from the alley mixes with the steaming food heat of the kitchen.
You hungry, Sugar? The woman is big and black, her white apron spattered with the day’s offerings. She is hard as coffin nails if anyone sasses her, sweet as pecan pie otherwise.
Yes, Ma’am, I am hungry. Could I please have a plate of beans and rice? Yes Sir, yes Sir, red beans and rice, forty cents a plate, and enough to keep a body alive for a whole day.
Shaking her head: Mmm-mmh. You going to want something to drink with that, Shug? They always shake their heads at me, all the Aunties. Skinny white boy with dirty ears, looking none to good for the wear. They laugh at my paltry tip, but slip it in their apron pockets just the same. My Gramps taught me, said if you can’t afford the tip, you can’t afford the meal.
Yes, Ma’am, a small beer please. I smile at the unspeakable luxury of it, a full meal and a seven-ounce beer. Even counting a dime for a tip, there’s money left over for a pack of camel straights and trolley fare back to the St. Charles mission. Let tomorrow be, today it’s all aces and eights.
She moves off, her broad back filling the narrow space behind the counter, leans over to say something to the cook. The cook turns her head, eyes find me, laughter crinkling the ebony skin of her face. Still laughing she turns away, shaking her head. A ladle dips into one of the huge pots simmering on a stovetop, then another. Steam rolls from the gaping maw of the battered pot. The white cloud disappears up through the humming range hood.
The Auntie is back, slapping plates on the rough countertop. Brought you an extra hunk of cornbread, Hon. It looks to me like you might could use it. Two plates, one large, one small; beside it a small, clear bottle of pale, amber beer. White rice smothering under a thick layer of red beans, only showing white at the edges of the plate. Two thick squares of cornbread on the smaller plate, a dribble of yellow margarine already melting out from under its waxed paper cover.
Thank you, Ma’am. I split open a hunk of cornbread, slide the margarine from its tiny pasteboard tray. The yellow square goes liquid almost before I can spread it, disappearing into the coarse, golden grain.
The warm slab fractures at the first bite, moist crumbs falling to the plate of rice and beans. The heavy cornbread is like cake in my mouth, coating my teeth in a thick paste. A sip of beer cuts through it, the sweating bottle slick in my hand.
My fork is heavy with beans and rice. I fight the urge to shovel it in. Make it last, son, who knows when the next plate will come along. I slow down, settle in, nurse the beer to match the dwindling plate.
The room begins to disappear. Steam gathers in rising billows, rolling across the counter in a hot fog. There is something wrong with the range hood. The fans have stopped working. We are all of us engulfed in a thick cloud; the diners at the splintered counter, the laughing cook, the Auntie. For a moment there is a voice, as warm and thick as the steam. How you like that cornbread, Shug? Then I am gone, and everything else is gone as well. I make a snatch for the cornbread, but I cannot find it in the fog. My last thought is the hope that someone will save my guitar.
The spring sunlight gleams on the paving stones of Mariahilfer Straße. Busy Viennese shoppers scurry past me where I stand. The busker kid is giving me a sidelong look, wishing I would move on. The coin has dropped, the transaction complete. The kid turns away, eyeing the passing crowd, willing the next coin to loosen and fall.
I want to slump against the wall, slide down into the shadow. I would lean over, our shoulders almost touching, speak in a conspiratorial whisper. Watching for the cops as he plays; sharp-eyed, I could be the lookout. One warning whistle and we would vanish like smoke. But before that, before the cops roust us, I would tell him things. There are so very many things to tell.
The busker kid starts into a blues progression, something simple, a filler tune. My legs begin to carry me away, knowing better than I do. It is time for me to move off a respectable distance.
I walk past a music store; make a resolution. I will buy the kid a new set of strings, good ones. The next time I see him, I will flip the flat packet of strings into his case without a second look. Just toss the strings and keep walking.
My reflection stares back at me from the plate glass shopfront, looking unimpressed. I don’t go into the music store. I don’t buy the strings. Instead, I walk up the wide promenade, heading for Westbahnhof. They are there when I get to the stairs, the three-card monte crew working the crowd. The dealer throws the shill a few wins to draw the suckers in. I pass the lookout at the top of the stairs, give him a curt nod. He laughs at being made, knowing I am harmless.
Far below the street, I lose myself in the crowd milling around on the platform. I stand there with the others, waiting for the train to roar out of the darkness.
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