Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Ham Sandwich Hallelujah

I've witnessed some strange things in this town. There was the time that guy drove into the Masonic Temple. There was the time I was sleeping in the living room and I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a megaphone saying WE HAVE YOU PARTIALLY SURROUNDED. There were all those times I heard bagpipes and couldn't figure out why. There was the time our local Tim Riggins rode down the sidewalk shirtless on his bike and caused a woman in her car to forget to go at the green light. And, my personal favorite, the time I saw the drunken fool walk into a brick wall and bounce off again. But last night was truly surreal.

I was sitting at my desk, writing an e-mail, when I happened to glance out my window and saw two guys with huge packs, the kind you hike around Europe with. I was trying to figure out how they got here when I realized that one of them was wearing a top hat with a red feather in it. The other one had a hat that I described on Facebook as a "Holmesian affair" only because I couldn't think of a better term fast enough. In fact, it looked like something a troubador would wear. That is the word that I thought at the time, "troubador," and I think it was because of the hat.

I didn't think they actually were anything of the kind . . . until they stopped on the stoop across the street and the tophatted one set down an instrument case. Then he took out a banjo. Then he tuned it. Then they put some money in the case and set it out on the step. The other one got out a harmonica. By this point I was just staring, open-mouthed. Anyone who has lived here will probably understand why. We do not have buskers in this town. We simply do not. It doesn't happen. But it was happening. They started to play.

Twenty minutes later, they were still there. I don't know what happened, but something came over me. I guess I was so fascinated by the very idea of buskers in this town, with hats, that my desperation to know how this had come about grew stronger than my normal fear of striking up conversations with strangers. I gathered what cash I had -- all of three dollars -- and went down and put it in their case. And I stayed for three hours.

On closer inspection, I discovered that the tophatted banjo-player was curly-haired and bearded, dressed in dark plaid, with tattoos of f-holes on his forearms. I said, "Where are you from?" and he said, "Burlington, Vermont," and I thought Yes. You could not be from anywhere else. That was James. Dylan played the harmonica, and he was from everywhere. He had "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" on one arm and something about bearing no malice on the other. He's spending the summer travelling with James, and will go back to school in the fall, where he is triple-majoring in photography, documentary something or other, and something else. (I'm a great listener.) Dylan was brightly sunburned, and was concerned that there was cement dust in his hair. There wasn't. James and Dylan were at the very beginning of a hitchhiking journey from Vermont to Washington state, where they planned to attend a "big hippie party" for like a month. James has lived off his banjo, on and off, for three years or so, and imparted a few helpful tips on sleeping in abandoned buildings (crack addicts are an issue) and finding food for free (dumpsters).

They knew a pretty incredible number of songs, and remembered the lyrics for the most part. They were fans of Tom Waits, and a lot of songs were about whiskey and revenge. I didn't know most of them, but somewhere in the middle, Dylan did absolutely beautiful renditions of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Slumber, My Darling." Two things about this: I didn't know the same guy who wrote "Camptown Races" was capable of such lyricism, and I didn't know harmonicas were capable of such lyricism either. I think that was my favorite part. Dylan was very smart and funny, and he learned all his songs by ear, and happily admitted to playing with tons of emotion, and even did an impression of himself being overly emotional about a sad song which was kind of hilarious. I wish I could convey this better. James, by contrast, had once locked himself in a room for six months with a hundred-year-old book on how music works, and now suspects he's lost his ear for emotion on account of knowing too much about the notes. To hear him, you wouldn't think so. They were both very talented, but they don't play festivals. James has stage fright.

A couple of people came by and gave them some cash, but it was a windy night and there weren't a lot of pedestrians. At one point, a guy parked his car in half of a parking place and hopped out to listen. He was barefoot. I kind of wanted to know what his deal was, but after a few minutes, he gave them a rather generous check, and drove away. Later, someone driving by chucked a ham sandwich out the window. We were not sure whether it was generous or obnoxious. So they sang a song about the sandwich, which was deeply moving. It went like this:

Ham sandwich
Ham sandwich
Ham sandwich
Ham sandwich
Ham saaa-aaa-aaandwich!

Then James sang another song about the ham sandwich, this time to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." I wish I could remember the lyrics, many of which where original, but all I remember now is, "It's a cold and it's a broken ham sandwich." There might have been a part about, "It's a warm and it's a moldy ham sandwich," which was closer to the truth. It was warm. Evidently it wasn't moldy, because they ate it.

At some point James got out his trumpet and put on his sunglasses and posed for Dylan's pictures as a blind jazz player, which was not convincing. His trumpet skills are a work in progress, but it is hard to dislike the sound of an even moderately-good trumpet under a streetlamp at night. He also had the rubber part of a plunger to serve as a damper. He said some stuff about having soaked the plunger six times in vinegar and soap. For some reason I thought this process did something to plunger that made it a better damper. Because I am an idiot, it wasn't until I was in bed later that it occured to me: the plunger was used! The part of the story that involved him bravely licking it then made more sense.

I learned a great deal about hitchhiking (it is illegal to hitchhike on I90 until Ohio, or something like that, which is why they were here waiting for a friend to pick them up and take them out of the state), harmonicas (they come in different keys! I never realized that), Stephen Foster (see above), Tom Waits (wrote unbelievably depressing songs on his honeymoon), how many pop songs use the same four chords (they sang quite a lot of Total Eclipse of the Heart: Literal Video Version), and more about hitchhiking (if you are not actually in the road, it is technically legal). Oh, and James also claimed that it is not totally inappropriate to eat hot sauce with pineapple (I disagree).

Eventually I had to go to bed, but when I got inside I really could not stop thinking about how readily they ate a tiny ham sandwich thrown to them out of a passing car, and how they had sung for me for three hours, and how I only had three dollars, so I made some rice, heated up some leftovers to dump on top of it, and brought them some food. I told them it would not hurt my feelings if they put hot sauce in it (they carry it with them). They were genuinely surprised and very thankful, as all they had was peanuts. In the morning, I opened my door and saw the two plastic containers there on the sidewalk, and had a very strange moment. That actually happened?

Tonight I kind of missed them. Their music was great, and they were good company. I always feel sympathetic toward people who are not traditionally employed, and these two were particularly pleasant, interesting, and talented people. Happily, Dylan gave me his blog address, so I will be following their travels. It would be rather sad to meet people like that, feed them, and know they're going to disappear in the middle of the night and you will never, ever know what happened to them. So Dylan had better update his blog.


Ivan said...

this was an unbelievably fabulous post. wow, just wow.

Anonymous said...

This is so cool. Buskers in Honeoye Falls! I wish them well in their adventures.

Pandora said...

I love when things like that happen. A rare night when something rare and unexpected happens and it turns out so delightfully.

Katie said...

So crazy awesome! I laughed. I almost cried. Nothing this crazy has every happened to me in my metropolis. Perhaps because we generally have buskers. Sounds like a most worthwhile evening.

Anonymous said...

Would you be willing to share the blog address? Your commentary makes me curious about their adventures.

Simon said...

Oh yes, here it is: