Jack Garvey’s “To be continued…”


What a treat to have Jack Garvey join us in the store last week!  He entertained us by playing his flutes before the reading and shared tales from his busking days and excerpts from his lively memoir.

For those in attendence, you heard Jack refer to his book ending on the note, “To Be Continued…” and he promised to share another chapter.  Well, we’ve got the chapter and are happy to share it here with you on the Jabberwocky blog.

We wish Jack a warm and fruitful busking season and thank him for a wonderful night at Jabberwocky Books!

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From Peeping Piper to Piping Hot

If you would learn to write, ‘tis on the street you must learn it. Both for the vehicle and for the aims of fine arts you must frequent the public square.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Call it “Peeping Piper.”

Took the idea from Lucille Ball’s famous mirror routine with Harpo Marx. On my busking circuit it has been possible only in Lexington where the shop behind my spot offers floor-to-ceiling windows. A flautist—that would be me—sidles up to the glass to stare and pipe at an unsuspecting shopper inside until the inevitable discovery of light shock and much surprise.

No surprise is the laughter of those on the sidewalk who pause for the shtick. Or of the clerks in the shop. Yes, it’s a gimmick, and yes, it pays some bills. Or it did until the women’s dress and accessory shop went out of business this past offseason. Bad luck for me, as women make the best show of surprise and are usually much better sports.
If my target started laughing while moving away, I’d follow her along the windows of the recessed entryway, trilling up scales as if to remind my own feet of the slight incline.

Now it’s a credit union, closed on Sundays, the day I busk there.

When the tipped turns tipper

Summers of late have been so humid that I prefer to stay on Plum Island beach—or outside my Shoe Box if there’s a breeze off the marsh—rather than raiding some touristy downtown as I did most weekends through my 30s, 40s, and most of my 50s.

Few people are there. And those few are slogging through errands they can’t avoid, wanting only to return to their air-conditioned cars and drive to their air-conditioned homes, interrupted only—if at all—by an hour or so in an air-conditioned restaurant.

None want to stop for a street-musician. Looking straight ahead, they wouldn’t see Stevie Wonder if he were to busk in broad daylight.

Evenings, though, are quite different, and the hotter the day, the better. People are back in town, strolling before and after their stops at restaurants, ice cream shops, coffee shops, bars. And so I save all the energy, such as it is in my early-to-mid-60s, for a two-hour romp toward 9:30 pm in nearby Newburyport.

Hence, I grill a bit earlier, and because I need to sit in a place for a good quarter hour before piping up the one-band-man, I pick up a cup of dark roast to sip on a Market Square bench.

There’s a Starbuck’s across Liberty St. where I park “Stick It,” my new Versa named for its manual shift, and across State St. from my spot. Since it has two doors, one facing each street, I barely break stride.

But my conscience is bothering me.

Yes, I would prefer the local coffee shops, as I often do at Caffe di Siena, or at Plum Island Roasters when I crave a bagel. But that’s not it. Rather, I never have change in my pockets when I busk. Call it superstition—the expectation of having plenty when I’m done. Or practicality—not wanting any weight in my pockets to confuse my knees when pumping a jig or reel.

I call it karma. Which is why I now find myself regretting my lack of change when the barista asks for $1.87 and I’m embarrassed to be leaving a 13-cent tip. Especially embarrassing for someone whose livelihood depends in part, however small, on tips. More so because I depend on the performance enhancing drug she serves.

And yet more because as I play I’ll be hawking a book on street-performance with a section titled “The Tipped Turns Tipper”—superstition, practicality, and karma all rolled into one.

At first I didn’t beat myself up over it, and it was that first Saturday night when I spotted her walking toward me on Market Square after her shift, late enough for my tip basket to look like a heaping Caesar salad. Delighted that she smiled and said hello, I figured I was off the hook but still wanted to make it up to her. Unfortunately, that would never occur to me when I’m locked in to my pre-busking routine.

Happened four consecutive Saturdays, including one when I was between songs. She laughed when I quipped, “Your coffee makes this possible!”

When she kept walking up Inn Street, I yelled across the square to people on the benches while pointing my alto at her: “This is her fault! Everything you’ve heard and are about to hear is her fault!”

Finally dawned on me that I could solve this as part of the act. Next time I spotted her, I stopped playing, took a dollar out of the basket and tried to become the first busker in history to tip a passerby. She laughed but wouldn’t take it. I said it was to compensate for all my lousy 13-cent tips, but she just kept walking as I followed her holding up a dollar bill.

Then I thought of what all those folks on the benches must be thinking of a lechering gray pursuing a woman half his age, if that, cash in hand.

At least I didn’t try to stick it in her belt. Next time I trek from Stick It to Market Square, I’ll just leave an extra dollar along with the 13-cents.

Oh, make it five! That way I can forget it till next summer.

When a ring rings a bell

Within seconds of throwing it away I remember the second girl appearing when the first stood back up.

Second girl, amazed: “You gave it to him?”

First girl, laughing: “Yes!”

With that the two teenagers disappeared into the night across Market Square as I finished a Handel flute sonata behind a music stand under the lone street lamp at the foot of Inn Street. Earlier, when the first paused and reached into her pocketbook, I took no note, having enough notes to note in front of me. Nor did I watch her as she knelt toward the basket, still searching her pocketbook.

Never learned so much as obeyed an instinct to ignore that basket while playing, but I couldn’t miss that she was there long enough to change a fifty. And I was there long enough to make that possible.

Moreover, I’d rather be ripped off $10 than spin-out of a B-flat-to-E-flat maneuver, so: Both eyes on the dotted lines.
Nor could I mistrust two girls whose expressions, facial and vocal, reminded me so much of my own daughter and her companions who twenty years ago patrolled downtown Newburyport to these same tunes. Rachel always had tip money—all $1 bills—for transcribing many of these sheets I still read.

Another instinct: After finishing, leave that basket under the stand for all of the prolonged time I take to leave. And as I get older, leaving takes longer. Usually gain at least one tip while I slowly pack my bag of tricks, setting up the old renfaire joke. In my best outdoor voice:

“That’s not because I stopped now, is it?”

Don’t roll your eyes. Additional tips from folks who overhear that pay for one of Lexi’s black & blue burgers now and then—with onion rings.

At night, figuring I have at best 90 minutes, it’s all high energy, much movement with jigs and reels away from the stand, capering with adults, dancing with kids. An occasional lament or air lets me recharge. When done, I must sit, but on this sultry evening the lone lighted bench right behind me is occupied. So I limp across the square and pack up in darkness.

Have to yell at a late tipper, but it has the desired effect when two more come from the folks who caused me to move. Tempting to yell again: “Keep your money and get off my bench!” But it would take a chapter in a book to put that joke in context.

When I finally return for the take, I hold the basket out to them as I leave: “Last call!”

A last round of laughs and a smattering of applause, but no more onion ring money. No complaint, though, as the night’s generous take makes me wonder how much is for music in the air, and how much for the sweat in my shirt.
And then I find “it.”

Many odd items land in any busker’s cash register, be it instrument case, hat, or basket: religious tracts, political fliers, litter, candy, pills, marijuana cigarettes. I consider the first two, toss the next three, and haven’t seen the last since my days in Denver.

That’s why my book’s first chapter, “Mile High Attitude,” is so nostalgic.

“It” seems like cardboard forming a circle the size of a Junior Mint. About to toss it into a nearby barrel, I recall the second girl’s emphasis on “it.” But I can’t see it, and so in a damp shirt pocket it takes the ride home where I promptly forget it. In summer I need more pirate shirts than I have, so next morning I hold a few over a sink full of soap and water.

Luckily, the white shirt is against a window, and I can’t miss the dark spot in the pocket. Not cardboard, but a dollar bill folded impossibly tight into a ring—with one 1 from a back corner set like a gem. Too small for my pinky—never wear rings anyway—but just in time for my daughter’s 36th birthday, an age perhaps a few years more than those two girls combined.

Call it full circle, more like I’m returning it. But the trip in time remains mine.

When the dancer is the dance

She’s about nine, dark hair cascading past her shoulders down a light, lavender dress, with a dance floor all to herself waiting on a flautist with a stage all to himself. Stage and floor happen to be the same, half the size of a tennis court except round, all brick surrounded by benches.

Welcome to Market Square, Newburyport, Mass., on a summer Sunday night.

On a Saturday evening she’d have many dance partners, and the street-musician would be hamming it up for people on every bench while serving jigs and reels, minuets and gavottes for the swirling chaos in front of him.
In front of me.

Ah, the night before! Dancers by the dozen. A woman my daughter’s age, NHS Class of ’96, home from Chicago for a visit, flashes back: “That was me!” she thrills between songs. “I’m amazed you’re still doing this! You make this music so alive!”

Eventually I’ll tell her that anyone putting motion and emotion—and sometimes commotion—into music does that, but at the moment I’m swept by an epiphany:

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music brims with magic because he had 20 children.

Perhaps music teachers miss this because they feel obligated to have students re-create the music just as written every time. All so suffocatingly serious. Critics may miss it because it’s the set-up line for an old, crude joke. I won’t repeat anything so low-brow, but it is true that Bach was a prolific organist who put far more effort into pumps than stops.

I take liberties with Bach because he is dead and I am not. A variation here, an improvisation there, and anything to fit an expression on a face anywhere. Only now do I grasp that this is what he intended.

So it is this Sunday night with a playful Bach gavotte for the girl in the lavender dress. A few onlookers cheer. One woman, about my age, lowers her handbag to the bricks and applauds, beaming at the girl. I’m quenching a serious thirst while the woman picks up her bag and leaves, walking within ten feet of me. Never looks at me. As if I’m not even here.

Among the first questions people ask about busking is an assumption: “Must take really thick skin to do this.” In the street I’ll simply nod, but my book on street-performance includes a chapter titled “Thick as a Trick.” The trick is to make any response part of the act.

Almost 40 years ago I instinctively played “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”—as a lament—when a loud, obscenity-laced conversation erupted just beside me. As the young men left, an elderly couple approached with a tip. No idea what it was, but I’ll never forget their fervent looks and thanks—especially with so many identical reminders ever since.
Tonight, however, is not about any decline in civility, it’s about indifference. As I fumble with the opening of “My Country,” the girl in the lavender dress waits with eyes that protest:

“That’s not a dance tune!”

Yes, the night before! I launch into the Bach minuet—yes, that minuet. Appears that she recognizes it as I retain the stately tempo, but I step toward her with eyes fixed, hoping she’ll sense my alteration. She does, holding a pose when I turn the best known two-note “bump-bump” in the history of music into a single “buhhhhhhhhh,” making it longer—and more comical—each time.

To scattered cheers and laughter I return to the stand and segue into a rapid-fire jig. The girl flies around and across the circle, her hair, arms, and dress at every angle.

I step back toward her repeating the last measures, re-catching her eye. She grasps that the scale going down will end going up.

Her hands fly high as I punch that top note, and she holds still, nailing it. Even her bow is fit for an Olympic stage, and after 16 years at King Richard’s Faire, I can match it.

Thanking me, her parents lead her away. Perhaps she’ll introduce herself twenty years from now while home from Chicago.

All I’m thinking is that Bach had twenty of these to work with. But tonight, all I need is one.


Return to Lexington. Shrugged off the disappointment of the previous raid in the rush of something else brand new: I had a book to sell, all about busking.

Only to learn that the local, downtown bookshop had also gone kaput.

And that the bookstore now nearest to the center of Lexington—the heart of the American revolution, the finish-line for Paul Revere’s ride, the target of his alarm, the haven for Samuel Adams and John Hancock when the British sought them for treason—is a mega-store in a huge shopping mall on the other side of an interstate in another town. How do I approach them with a book that includes a chapter titled, “A Call to Un-Mall”?

Any improvisation I manage this day will be titled, “The Chain Stores Are Coming!”

When I set up on Mass. Ave. the wind is more than I thought. Without sheets on the stand, my repertoire is cut to about a third, which limits improvisation by thrice as much. Until I realize that the credit union being closed means that the recessed entry way is fair game—though maybe not so much as women shopping for dresses.

Moving in allows me to keep the stand upright, and the enclosure amplifies the music, allowing me to play much more on the deep-toned tenor recorder with much less effort and far more articulation and nuance.

Some folks mention the distance at which they hear me as they leave their tips—with expressions I see only when I play full-tilt.

Yes, it’s a gimmick, and yes, it pays bills.

Borrowing the word favored by sound technicians, I call it “Piping Hot.”


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