Time to Settle Accounts
January 4, 2011: Let them eat digital cake
There are few musicians in the city of Chicago whom I enjoy more thoroughly than a good subway player. Street players delight me on occasion, but there are many more schlubs than pros.
But hunkered down in the Loop subway stations sit pure artists, all craft and entertainment.
This one was a wily guitarist. He wore glasses with thick, round frames that covered his orbital bone. He wore thick, but not baggy, blue jeans, workman’s boots, and a large, hooded sweatshirt. Around his neck was a six-point star within a circle, which I assumed was not the Star of David, though I did not ask. He played jazz guitar. He looked like a young 70.
The few people in the station were waiting for the opposite train, the side where he was playing, so I stood alone on my side and enjoyed his music. He looked up and smiled, and I smiled back, and now he was playing for me, playing to me, his fingers and heart and lifetime of memories blessing me with my very own show.
I applauded. “Thank you, thank you,” he said. “You play?”
“Never did,” I said. He smiled quietly and shook his head. “I picked it up once, but never had the discipline,” I said as I walked to his side.
He continued with a light finger pick. “It’s like anything. Gets easier as you do it.”
“How long you been playing?” I said.
We were looking each other in the eye, and laughed comfortably when he said, “Sixty years.” We talked a bit more, and introduced ourselves, but then he stopped.
“Taking a break?”
“I don’t play for cops.” He motioned toward a man on the other side of the station. The man was in his late 30s, had a buzz cut and clean, black, leather shoes, black slacks, and a leather coat. None of the signs displayed – no badge, cuffs, gun, belt.
“Right there talking to that woman? With the buzz cut?”
“They try to be slick with the coat and all, but they’re easy to spot.”
“You don’t play for police?” I said.
“Don’t like ‘em,” he said. “Always messing. Arrested me – oh, last time was about a month ago. I’m an electrician, and I had finished a job at a restaurant downtown, and was cleaning up in the bathroom on my way to the gig. Some rent-a-pig sees me and calls the real pigs, and they pick me up for being a ‘vagrant.’ Thought I was homeless.” He chuckled. “Holding a ten thousand dollar guitar. Washing my hands. A ‘vagrant.’”
He eyed him once more, and watched as the officer in question walked down the station away from us. “To hell with him,” said the old guitarist, and began playing once more. “Let him get an iPod.”
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