Tales From a Banjo-Playing Man

ON days off, Tom borrows his parents' Chevette and drives to Seattle to play his five-string bluegrass banjo at the public market. That's where we're headed now. He's talking about either the opera or the opry, I'm not sure which. Whichever it is, it reminds him of a Grateful Dead concert he hitchhiked halfway up the East Coast to see. There was some misunderstanding and he ended up near the shore of Lake Erie instead of Philly (misunderstanding is Tom's word, not mine), with a couple dollars and no place to sleep. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, but it reminds me of the scenario I used to justify getting a credit card to my parents, who at that time still had to co-sign. Tom has no credit cards. ``Let's be realistic,' ' he says. ``It wasn't the greatest thing, but next morning the sun came up, just like it always does.''

We reach the market before anything's really going on there. I guess it's about nine, but my watch has stopped, so I ask Tom, forgetting that he doesn't wear one (``I keep all the time I need to with my foot''). He's already in the middle of another story anyway, this time about junior year abroad in Leningrad. ``I'd been there a long time. I'd stopped changing my clothes every day. But somehow they still knew I was a foreigner. They didn't know exactly where I was from, but they could tell by my shoes I wasn't from there. The Soviets have terrible shoes.'' He's wearing now, as he did then, black Keds hightops. ``They love Nike tennis shoes. They pronounce it so it rhymes with Mike. Nike. Unbelievably label conscious. Always wanted to know what's better, Land's End or L.L. Bean. How do you answer a question like that?''

Tom wants to get a cup of coffee before he plays, besides which, he doesn't know who has the first set this morning. There are lots of performers in the market, and rules about who can play where and when and for how long. Tom runs into someone he calls Donny, and Donny says he's up first, but maybe Tom would like to join him, he could use a banjo player. But Tom still wants a mocca grande at Starbuck's (he pronounces this ``mo-ka gran-day''), so Donny joins us instead.

We pass Ramblin' Rex, who's playing a steel guitar and singing about the woman he loved who ran away with another man. ``We got the Park Place Blues right here,'' he announces. Tom knows him and we stop for a listen. ``This is the guy I was telling you about,'' says Tom, nudging me to take a picture. Eventually, we each drop a dollar in his guitar case and continue along.

This sparks another round of anecdotes: Tom tells me about some of the things that have landed in his own case instead of money, like telephone numbers written on matchbooks, and once, inexplicably, a half of a Norwegian lox.

He then adds, ``One thing people always ask me when I'm playing is: `Where'd you learn how to pick a banjo like that?' I could tell them anything. If I say Washington, D.C., they nod their heads and say, `Ohhh,' like that means something. Then somebody says, `My uncle plays banjo.' It's important that I know that before my next song. Sometimes you get people from Texas and they'll dance. Texans love to dance.'' Tom mimics, in a drawl: ``I just came from Austin today and here's this guy takin' me back ho me already.''

A SITAR player is sitting cross-legged on a little woven rug next to a doorway, and we wait for a moment. An older gentleman walking by asks, ``What's he playing, there?'' Tom answers that it's a sitar. ``Ohhh, a guitar. Funny looking guitar.'' Somebody comes up to Tom. ``Can I borrow a dollar for the next hour, man?'' Tom gives it to him. Another street musician; they hang together.

Outside Starbuck's Coffee Shop, two violinists have set up their music stands. They attach clothespins to the music to keep the pages from blowing. ``We're going to do a Pleyel duet,'' says one of them, and then adds, quietly, to his companion, ``Repeat the C Major section.'' They begin to play. A GMC Sierra Grande (Sierra Gr-an-day?) pickup with a plexiglass top over its bed and a McHugh's Traveland sticker on the back starts up loudly on the street behind us. It's been wedged in by other parked cars, so it takes a lot of maneuvering and revving of the engine for it to get out of there. One of the violinists drops his bow. A harmonica player blasts by.

At Starbuck's, the conversation is noticeably slack. Donny eventually answers some question of mine by confiding: ``I've never heard of a street musician starving to death. I've heard of some losing a lot of weight, but never starving to death.''

After paying $2, mostly in pennies and nickels, for the coffee, Tom and Donny decide to play. The market is filling with people as they open their cases, take out their instruments, and tune up. They start with ``Nellie Kane,'' ``The Old, Old Home,'' ``Rank Stranger,'' and ``Pow Wow the Indian Boy.'' A man in a rugby shirt asks Tom if he knows ``The Beverly Hillbillies.'' I watch and listen for a while, and then I begin to wander on my own.

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