Spring had sprung in the Pacific Northeast. The beautiful red flowers on the camellias start blooming in February. Being a gardener, I loved the fact that there were flowers most of the year. We had the best yard with two apple trees, a pear tree, two cherry trees, a plum tree and grape vines. There was a camellia bush in the front, a couple of rose bushes in the back and in the side yard and lots of other things coming up that I wasn’t sure of yet. One of them had tons of round buds but I had no idea what they were, so I went to the library to find out. They were peonies. I waited patiently as the buds grew bigger and bigger, looking forward to the amazing floral display they would provide. One day, Jessie came running inside excitedly to invite me to a tea party. I grabbed Justin and went with her to the backyard. There was a table set up with a big bowl of peony buds set out as our pretend snack. I almost cried but instead took a deep breath and sat down to tea. Later, I explained to her what those buds were, and she agreed to leave them alone next year.
As summer approached, the rainy weather lessened. It often still rained everyday but usually only for an hour or two with the sun coming out in the late morning. It was time to get back to our busking routine, so every Saturday we packed a lunch, loaded up the kids with all of their accessories and took the bus downtown to “Saturday Market.” What a place that was! It was like a festival. There were all kinds of vendors selling beautiful handcrafted art and crafts, many different foods including a woman who walked around with a large basket on her head selling cookies for adults only and street performers. There were jugglers, magicians, vaudeville acts and musicians everywhere. There was plenty of room for everyone and most of the other performers were very welcoming and helpful. There was a backroom in an abandoned warehouse that was used as our green room. It wasn’t cool to party right out on the street, and everyone was very considerate of the fact that there were kids around and people from all walks of life, so the partying happened in the green room, except for the adult cookies.
Some of our favorite people were “Artis, the Spoonman,” who showed Jessie her first string figure – a fishing spear, and Tom Noddy who did soap bubble art. You can look both of these characters up online. Artis joined us every once in a while, giving our act a boost for the day. Jessie was very intrigued by both of these guys, and they were very sweet to her. Jessie usually wore a flowing skirt and danced around while we played. We all loved being there. We were often given items from the vendors and never knew what would be thrown into our case. One day we were playing Joni Mitchell’s “Morning Morgantown” when a long-haired older hippie stopped to listen. We moved from there into Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” then some Grateful Dead. As we sang “Tennessee Jed,” this guy smiled and dropped a brown pouch in our case. We nodded and smiled at him as he nodded back and walked off. It was getting to be lunch time, and we’d done well so far, so we packed up and headed to the park to eat.
After we got the kids settled, Paul pulled out the pouch, opened it up and found a beautiful pipe made of cherry wood, scrimshawed elk horn with a collar of ebony. We were astounded. Along with the description came directions for how to clean it. “Take a low E string from an acoustic guitar and heat the end red hot. Plunge it into the end to clean. Repeat until it stops sizzling.” We decided it was our “music pipe” and always smoked out of it whenever we played music, at gigs, parties, jams and even practices. When Paul and I split up, he kept the pipe. When he died, one of my sons wanted it, but I explained that it was mine until I was no longer around. I still have it, and it’s still my music pipe.
Jessie always shared her lunch with the homeless people in the park. We always packed more than she wanted to eat so she would give them half a sandwich or some fruit or vegetables. She had a fine-tuned sense of who was approachable and who she should steer clear of. It was interesting to watch her navigate this world. She would sit nearby and listen to their stories, telling plenty of her own. These folks often stopped to hear us play too, until someone eventually shooed them away. When my parents came to visit, we walked downtown with them on a weekday. As we passed by, the homeless men all called out to us by name, waving and wishing us well. My mom, horrified, looked at me and asked, “Are these your friends?” Well yes, they were. Her father had been a homeless alcoholic at the end of his life, “dying in the gutter” as she put it. I know it was hard for her to understand our relationship with these men, which was only friendliness and acceptance. It’s not like they came to our home or stalked us. They weren’t demons or criminals. They were just hurt humans who were grateful for some personal contact.
Then there were the young and old people who had hit the road, just like Paul and I had done. On our own travels, someone was always helping us out, giving us rides, a place to stay, feeding us and more. It was important to us to repay this in kind, so we were always bringing folks home. We met one young man at Saturday Market. Clinton was a Harvard student who had taken a year off to travel the country. He asked if he could join our act and juggled while we played. Later, in the green room, we asked where he was staying. He had just come into town and hadn’t yet found a place. We told him he was welcome to tent in our backyard, and he took us up on it. After about a week, I noticed he was coming in to use the bathroom a lot, so I asked if he was alright. With not much money, he had been eating the fruit from our trees, mostly plums at that time. I started feeding him, and he soon became part of our family. He was wonderful with both kids, and they loved him, too. Once in a while he would take off to travel for a few days then come back. He spent the whole summer with us and came back off and on throughout the year. He hung out with the Flying Karamazov Brothers learning juggling tips and tricks from them and got very good at his art. He was also a musician, so there was plenty of jamming going on. When he finally went back to school, we were all sad.
Then there was Ray… Paul met Ray downtown and fell for his sad story of love lost and fortunes reversed. Ray was living out of his van trying to find a job so he could return home to North Carolina. Paul invited him to park his van at our house. I didn’t like this guy the minute I saw him. There was something sketchy about him that I couldn’t put my finger on, but Paul seemed to like him, so I decided to give him a chance. Before long, Ray found a job and had moved into our living room, abandoning his bed in the van. He found a job and continued to eat all of our food, take showers daily and lounge around without helping out at all. He never lifted a finger to clean up after himself or offer any assistance, monetary or otherwise. I didn’t mind feeding people and helping them out, but Ray was a leech. Everyone else we’d had stay helped out with vegetable gardening, chores, yard work or something … anything. Not Ray. What Ray did do was bring a bible into the house and start trying to convert Jessie to Born Again Christianity. I had nothing against his Christianity, but I wanted to choose for my own child. Once I laid down the law and made him stop, things got ugly. He stopped speaking to me, muttered and glared whenever he was around. I finally gave Paul an ultimatum. It was either Ray or me. I was ready to move out and bring the kids with me. I didn’t know where I’d go, but I was a survivor and would surely be able to figure it out. Paul knew that, and we gave Ray a deadline of one month to save enough of his earnings to go back home. When the month was up, he invited Paul out for one last night on the town to thank him for his generosity. I resented the fact that I was the one who’d had to deal with this loser most of the time and didn’t even get a nod, but I was mostly relieved that he would be leaving early in the morning.
Around eleven that night, I heard a truck in our driveway. When I went out to look, there was Ray’s van that had been all packed up with everything he owned, including most of his saved money, on the back of a tow truck. Upon leaving one of the bars they visited that night, the van wouldn’t start so he decided to prime the carburetor which was located inside the cab of the Chevy van. He must have spilled gas or something because the whole van caught fire and was now an empty burned out shell. Everything he owned was gone. I stood on the porch looking at it and cried. Maybe I was heartless, but I couldn’t pout up with him another day. He just had to go. Miraculously, he was able to wire his family for enough money to make the trip, something that he could have done all along. It turned out that they had plenty of money and wanted their son back. Although, I couldn’t figure out why. After he left, Paul admitted that he hadn’t liked him either and was relieved that I was able to stand up to everyone and get rid of him. Thanks, Paul. Once again, I had to deal with the bad guys. Luckily, there were way more good guys that I was happy to deal with as well with even more to come.