In Praise of the Truly Free: Street Peddlers & Buskers

Brain Dropping #148 – Street Peddlers & Buskers...

                      As a child at 575 Williams Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn I remember Mr. 48.  He was a Roma, or as we called them then, a Gypsy – from the erroneous belief that they had their origins in Egypt.  Mr. 48 was an itinerant shoe-shiner with his equipment in a box doubling as a foot stool, slung over his shoulder.  Why Mr. 48?  His specialty aside from polishing shoes for a quarter, was naming all forty-eight states in one minute.  Yes, this was way before Alaska and Hawaii were made the forty-ninth and fiftieth states.  We kids would surround him as he rattled off the states alphabetically from Alabama to Washington.  His box and his leather vest were festooned with pop bottle caps of all descriptions.  In those days each bottle cap had a cork liner.  You could extract the cork, place the metal cap on your shirt, and on the reverse side force the cork back into the cap to hold it in place. 
                Mr. 48 was one of the many street peddlers who came into our neighborhood during the Great Depression, just before WWII.  There was the Rag-Picker with a bulging sack on his back, his cry of “RAAGS!” “RAAGS!” “RAAGS!” echoed through the alleys.  There was the Accordion Player in the same alleys.  As he payed the squeeze-box he scanned the windows from which housewives would throw a penny or two wrapped in piece of newspaper.  My mother would allow me to wrap the coins and toss them out the window. I can’t remember which tunes he played, but the narrow alleys bounced the sound delightfully between the walls.
               There was the Knife Sharpening Truck – a panel truck with a hinged panel which when propped open revealed a work bench with a turning shaft of various emery and polishing wheels.  This in contrast to a Knife Sharpening Man on foot, carrying on his back, a  treadle-operated round honing stone on a tripod. In both cases the attraction for us kids were the sparks flying from the wheel as the knives and scissors were brought to a keen edge.
               We also had a Merry-Go-Round on a flat bed truck. For a nickel you could ride one of eight battered horses ’round and ’round in a ten foot circle, the power supplied by the driver using a hand crank.
               Baked sweet potatoes, potato knishes, chick peas, or in Yiddish “arbis,” were sold wrapped in old newspapers from enameled metal carts warm with smouldering charcoal fires.  During the worst of the Depression, when the furrier trade was slack, my father joined the ranks of street peddlers, selling potatoes from a horse drawn wagon.
               Today, with the world in economic turmoil, these stalwart street peddlers and buskers are everywhere in countless numbers. Their presence fortifies the soul in a largely inhospitable society.  I rarely fail to acknowledge their healing magic with a buck or two.  A while ago I saw a Japanese man on the 59th Street subway platform playing the Koto, the traditional Japanese stringed instrument, in the midst of the hurrying crowd and the crash and roar of arriving trains.  Not long ago, a team of acrobatic, kamikaze hip-hoppers with breathtaking moves, came storming into my subway car.  A superbly talented classical violinist, classical guitarist and, awesomely, a string quartet, on different occasions, all doing their thing in the nooks and crannies of the NYC subway system staying out of the rain and cold.  My son Eli is a mighty busker who has travelled the world – California, Burning Man, London, Barcelona, Berlin – playing and singing his heart out above the crowd on six foot stilts.
                 No story captures the spirit of the street peddler/musician more than that of Steven Slepack who died in 1996 at the age of 46 in Rochester, Vermont.  Abandoning a full science scholarship to the University of Hawaii he earned his living as a street banjo player and, according to the NYT, “a Street Balloon Virtuoso” twisting balloons into animals for children in Central Park, Paris and elsewhere to the accompaniment of 1920s jazz on his tape deck.


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