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The Busker
by KJ Hannah Greenberg



Clarence James packed up his Casio 4400. He shook his head at his apparatus, wondering why, after three years of ownership, the keyboard’s speaker was suddenly plaguing him with buzzing sounds. He had never bothered to turn down his volume and, prior, had never suffered for that decision.


On his way back to the space he rented in a rooming house, CJ poked around some municipal garbage cans. It would take two full bags of recyclables to buy the AA batteries he needed for his Casio. On balance, he still had a few packages of ramen noodles and a dented can of beans left in his cabinet; he could afford the splurge.


Ever since the media had begun showcasing women wearing pink pussy cat hats, tourists had gravitated toward female protestors and away from male street entertainers. That change was a pity as CJ had recently perfected his rendition of “Vincent.” Every few months, he perfected his version of some popular tune.


Sometime in the foggy past, CJ had been a piano player. On weekends, he accompanied opera singers at important locations such as Beacon Theatre, Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center, and Radio City Music Hall. On weeknights, he played weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. At the time, he owned a pied-à-terre in Yorkville and was heartsick over Pamela Lyn Striter.


The pair had met on a cruise ship on which they both had worked. Pamela Lyn, who had majored in early childhood education at Adelphi University, was the ship’s daycare director. CJ was part of the salaried showbiz. Every night, he played two sets in the piano lounge. Three times per week, he furthermore performed contemporary hits in the ship’s small, vaudeville-styled theatre.


Pamela and CJ’s romance blossomed during their limited, overlapping off hours. Neither of them had to test their company’s policy against fraternizing with guests because of each other. There was enough real estate to explore in Pamela’s blue eyes and in CJ’s brown ones to keep Pamela from coveting fit stockbrokers from Chicago, and CJ from hankering after chubby matrons from Toronto.


Three weeks into their love affair, however, Pamela revealed that she was pregnant with her ex’s child. Although she looked fairly slim, she was actually already in her second trimester. Pamela had signed on as cruise staff as a last ditch effort to see a few ports before she became anchored by maternity.


At Papeete, Tahiti, CJ broke up with that idealized virtuous and beautiful woman. For the rest of his time on the ship, he remained chaste.


Pamela Lyn, likewise, formed no new significant associations for the rest of the cruise. She did, nonetheless, enjoy the attentions of a bartender named “Lou” and of a chambermaid named “Phara.” She meant to explore more than ship harbors.


Clarence James continued to work as an instrumentalist when he returned to the city. His degree from Mannes notwithstanding, he had been touted by family, by friends, by teachers, and by the judges of the music contests that he was regularly winning, as “The Next Best Thing.” Whereas the producers of Broadway shows and of other pricy amusements didn’t care about those erstwhile critics’ devotion to CJ’s talent, they did hire him as yet another source of cheap, worthy labor when his recital contracts dried up.


So, CJ continued to earn a respectable wage until his lone brother, Timothy John, was diagnosed with advanced, aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. TJ’s treatment required dose-intense, dose-dense, sequential chemotherapy. He was fitted with a chest port.


Thereafter, following each dosing, TJ fell sick. He was sicker than his wife had been during her pregnancies, sicker than CJ’s latest girlfriend had been before she died of an overdose, and sicker than TJ and CJ’s father had been when he coughed his lungs out to cancer at age forty-two.


TJ stopped showing up to work. A substitute was hired to fill his role as a high school music teacher. On top of that, TJ stopped eating his wife’s delicious pastries and refused his and CJ’s mother’s well-seasoned soups. He complained that during the few hours of each week that nausea did not devastate him, his tongue seemed coated with a metallic-tasting fluid. No food agreeably mixed with that tang. Consequently, TJ swallowed his needed calories via Orgain creamy chocolate shakes or Myoplex strawberry-flavored drinks. Although he gagged as he sipped, he valiantly chucked back those compulsory liquids.


Meanwhile, the doctors remained iffy about TJ’s pathology findings. Some said he’d live another twenty years. Others urged him to firm up his will. Straddling both kinds of views, TJ provided informed consent to continue with his harsh treatments.


As TJ’s blood counts continued to go haywire, CJ’s continued to lose interest in performance. His older brother, the kid who had earned his silver cornet in adolescence, was and would always be the better musician. It had been TJ who had won an instrumental scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon University and it had been TJ who, upon graduation, had received and had fulfilled invitations to play not in orchestras, but as a soloist, at Vienna’s Musikverein and at Dublin’s Helix.


It had been a lack of good decisions on the part of TJ’s manager, combined with the wiles of a pretty, British flautist that had pulled TJ from the concert circuit. He fired the manager and married the performer. Afterwards, he enrolled in a teaching certificate program. TJ’s three kids, happy marriage, and reliable employment gave CJ the impression that TJ had made the right choices.  


CJ dared not to claim the same about his own life. In fact, as his brother faded, he increasingly questioned both his daily rehearsal hours and his inability to commit to a partner. Accordingly, CJ quit his contracts. He used most of his savings to pay off the resulting fines.


Bussing tables brought no better happiness to CJ. Besides, not only did one girlfriend after another break up with him, citing his flightiness and earning incompetence as their rationale, but his brother’s health worsened. The outcome of those upsets was that CJ spent the rest of his savings on voice lessons.


He had loved to sing, but had followed his brother at trying to prosper as an instrumentalist. Finally focusing on his bright tenor made him happy.


Just as CJ was making progress on opening up his voice, his brother died from his chemotherapy’s toxicity. After TJ’s funeral, CJ broke his lease, sold his worldly goods on EBay, and moved onto the street. There, he discovered his talent for busking.


Sometimes, people gave him food or drink instead of money. Sometimes, they gave him both.

Clarence James became popular enough in the subway and at intersections to eventually rent on a room in a boarding house plus to afford modest comestibles.


A friend from the music industry asked and was given permission to record some of CJ’s performances. Artistically, the CD was a sensation. Financially, it flubbed; CJ balked at asking strangers or intimates to buy copies of that music. After his brother died, music had become an ethereal commodity, that is, a conduit to joy and sorrow rather than a boulevard to profits. It never occurred to CJ that creating for altruistic reasons need not interfere with a second party marketing his yields.


CJ’s financial state would have benefitted had he allowed someone to become his middle man. For the reason that he was neither troubadour nor Gypsy, he had no community or any other form of social protection. If he became ill, there would be no one outside of his family, who became estranged once he took to the streets, to attend to him. Health care would have been worth investing in.


Undeniably, CJ was friends with Fred, the one-man band who played harmonica, drum, and tambourine, simultaneously, in a nearby park, and who passed CJ’s favorite sidewalk perch on his daily walk to work. CJ was pals, as well, with Sammy, the fellow who sold nickel bags to any interested passersby and who engaged in other questionable means of earning money. Sammy almost always brought a large carton of juice or water, and sometimes also a box of cookies, to CJ when making his daily rounds.


As well, there was Emmanuel, the owner of a large factory whose products often sold on the same streets where CJ performed. Emmanuel had determined that copying designer handbags, watches, and sweaters could be profitable. He had been right; he traveled from his large home on the island to his small factory in the Meat Packing District in a chauffeured car. Every time he passed CJ, he invited the entertainer into his limo and raided his refrigerator for a cold beef and pickle sandwich and a beer to give to him. “Dessert” was always a twenty or a fifty dollar bill. Emmanuel, who had no inner conflict over profiting from counterfeits, was like the other members of the restricted clubs to which he belonged in that he valued authentic artistic ability.


Anyway, CJ had never made full use of his Casio’s forty-eight note polyphony and had never imagined wanting to use his synthesizer as a backup to his main mechanism, his voice. He had long regarded his assemblage of wires and plastic as a way to maintain his beat, meaning, as a toy with which he could tool around on days when the city’s streets appeared devoid of pedestrians. It pained him to have to supply it with new components.


During the same period that CJ had to shell out for new batteries, Fred encouraged him to join Stanley, the juggler, Mimi, the acrobat, and him, in creating a circle show. Concurrently, Emmanuel was encouraging CJ to linger in the limousine, and to become the family guest who would perform, exclusively, at Emmanuel’s various sorties. Emmanuel had pressed a one hundred dollar bill into CJ’s slack hand as he mentioned that his thirty-first anniversary was on the horizon and that Emmanuel’s Valkyrie of a wife would likely be soothed by CJ’s voice.


CJ refused both deals. He had learned to set up his chair and music stand in places where there was a lot of foot traffic. He had learned, additionally, that conforming led to heartache. It was better for him to leave his dented coffee can on the sidewalk and to perform on his own than to split the take from Fred’s doll box or to accept large sums from Emmanuel.


The only exception CJ made to crooning unaided was to take delivery of an invitation from an alternative burlesque show. By the time he had finished giving voice to numerous tunes culled from an earlier generation’s hootenannies, he had warmed up the audience sufficiently for it to appreciate the tease of fabric and glitter. The nonbinary producer of the show granted CJ two hundred dollars. That night, CJ bought enough batteries to last a decade.


In the same way, CJ bought some kibble to feed to the dumpster cats living near his building. His temporary pecuniary lavishness meant he could invite felines to gobble up the mice and roaches frequenting his room.


Time passed. Clarence James met a gal named “Dorothy,” who played acoustic bongos. Although their styles of music were incompatible, their personalities were not. The two married.

Their ceremony was performed by a food bank worker, who had become ordained just for their nuptials. What’s more, their wedding feast of bologna sandwiches and fruity punch, too, was supplied by the food bank.


After their rites, the newlyweds took an extremely brief honeymoon on a double decker tourist bus. CJ admired a pink building housing a museum. Dorothy fancied a skyscraper dressed in a façade of multihued glass. Both of them were glad to have circled the city.


The first night of their marriage, they retired to Dorothy’s camp, which was located under a bridge. CJ relocating to her home had been a condition of her accepting his proposal. His accompanying her on accordion was another. For a few weeks, they made strange, beautiful music together.


Ultimately, they moved to a warmer clime. CJ’s Casio got left behind, intentionally, since there was limited room in the suitcases they stowed in the belly of an interstate bus.


For years thereafter, in Palm Beach’s county seat, two geriatric musicians amused visitors. Around their necks were lanyards declaring them official city employees. No mention was ever made of the ramshackle hut in which they slept.


Police officers often cruised by Clarence James and Dorothy’s piece of the sidewalk and asked for favorite songs. Persons of political importance, similarly, frequently insisted on getting their pictures taken with the couple. Coeds from the Lincoln College of Technology, from Keiser University, and from the local branch of the Empire Beauty School habitually stopped by to listen and to ask those elders the types of questions about life that they dared not to bring home to their parents.


One evening, when he was nearly eighty, CJ laid down on the palette that he and Dorothy had shared for decades. He reached under a grimy blanket to retrieve the wad of cash that he saved for his final “show.” “Buy a Winnebago,” he urged while holding his beloved’s hand. Clarence James shut his eyes for a final time.


As he drifted off and away, he contemplated how he had once been a prodigy, but TJ, his brother, had been an even more remarkable one. Yet, TJ had tempered achievement with love. CJ exhaled a final grateful breath. He was glad he had followed his older sibling’s example.




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