Cover photo by Mike Koozmin.
You hear them every day. And if you don't hear them — if you've got your ear buds in and someone else's voice in your head — you still see them. Street musicians, or what some people (maybe on the East Coast) call buskers. The idea's been around forever, and certainly in a city once so dedicated to public displays of art, the street musician was even more a fixture of the urban landscape. Now that so many of us carry our own music in our pockets, the musicians seem strangely anachronistic, like ... well, like a cable car running through a city.
But play on they do, mastering their peculiar corners of the culture: a Nintendo savant on accordion, a guitarists playing hundred-year-old tunes, a man who can't abide a band and plays all the instruments himself. You'll be out more this time of year, doing whatever holiday thing you're doing, and they'll be out there too, of course. Unplug yourself and tune in.
Underground train stations, Fisherman's Wharf
The commuter was young. He wore a red cap. He flashed a massive wad of bills. And he probably spent a considerable portion of his youth around the Nintendo Entertainment System.
That would make sense to Nick Albert. The 25-year-old accordion player's repertoire is essentially tunes from 1980s-era Nintendo games. And it seems the kids who amassed coins playing Super Mario Bros. have gone on to amass their fair share in the wider world. The young man in the red cap peeled off a $100 bill and flicked it into the case of the accordionist squeezing out a Mario ditty.
He was long gone by the time Albert realized that he'd been tipped 100 times the going rate. It didn't earn him an extra life. It just paid for another day of this one.
Albert's life isn't so straightforward as those from the games he mines for material. Playing videogame music on a 70-year-old pawnshop accordion, in the subway, is not an end Albert achieved through meticulous planning.
He's only here because his hot dog stand failed.
After years of toiling at minimum-wage jobs, Albert socked away around $3,000. That bought him a foothold in the sausage industry: "I wanted to start my own business. And that's pretty much the smallest scale you can do it." But even small scales come with big costs. Purveyors of dirty-water hot dogs, Albert learned, need to store their wares at commercial kitchens. There's the matter of permitting. There are costs associated with renting refrigerator space, freezer space, and space for your hot dog cart. And hot dogs? Those aren't as inexpensive as Albert thought they'd be. "The hot dog market," he reflects, "is not what you'd expect."
Not unlike most videogames, it ended very quickly for Albert. He chuckles at the memory of rapidly burning through his life savings. "You know, I wasn't really good at running a business."
So, he was back to working at someone else's. Deep-frying potatoes. Sweating in kitchens. And then he wasn't even doing that. The blue-pearl accordion he impulsively bought two years ago after hawking a guitar at a pawnshop has been his sole source of income this year. An epiphany that the music accompanying Mario's aquatic escapades "sounds like an old French waltz" provided him with his hook. He's only game-ready with eight or nine songs: a couple from Mario, a couple from Zelda, and "other stuff that sounds good on an accordion" like "Greensleeves" or "Fur Elise." It's an exclusive playlist. "But most of them are crowd-pleasers."
Not every red-capped man will drop a C-note out of nostalgia for a videogame starring a red-capped man. But it's a rare day that Albert can't amass 10 bucks an hour. This, he surmises, is as good as he's ever done and as good as he can realistically do.
He grew up in Menlo Park and graduated from the elite Menlo-Atherton High School; notable alumni include Bob Weir, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks — but Albert is, all but certainly, the school's first accordion-playing street musician. Life after high school hasn't gone according to plan; that would have required a plan. There were a litany of menial jobs, the hot dog escapade, nights staying in motels, nights crashing on couches, and, now, a house in the Outer Sunset subdivided into six rooms and shared with seven other guys. Rent is $650, a figure likely to induce Mario-like nostalgia for many San Franciscans. One roommate works at a bakery, which is never a bad thing.
The money tossed in Albert's case goes toward keeping his room in that house. And yet, there are rewards greater than amassing coins in this game. Not long ago, an artist knocked out a caricature of the accordionist and presented it in lieu of a tip. This is an experience most $10-an-hour workers do not share.
He's moved around a lot of late. He knows the picture is in a drawer. He just doesn't know where.
But, one of these days, he's gonna find it. And then he's gonna get it framed. Joe Eskenazi
Market Street outside the Old Navy
Larry Hunt — the man affectionately known as "Larry the Drummer" or "Larry Bucket Man" — was not performing outside the Old Navy department store on Market Street last Monday afternoon. But all of his effects were there, piled haphazardly on a stack of milk crates, and strung together with cord. There were big unopened cans of tomatoes, and plastic recycling buckets, and a picture of actor Will Smith looking bright-eyed and mustachioed. A cardboard sign bore Hunt's plea to fans, penned in zig-zaggy blue marker.
"SF/City is banning Bucketman New Generation Band," the sign said. "Got $460.00 ticket for playing. Please help. I play in movie Pursuit Happyness Will Smith." Hunt left his phone number at the bottom, along with an apparently defunct website: LarryBucketman.com.
At 55, Hunt is warm and weathered. He has a wide, crinkly grin and a voice made chalkier by years of eating fire during his performances. He says he first tried eating fire in 1979, after a man in a redneck country bar bet a thousand dollars he couldn't do it. "I was drinking 151 Bacardi straight," Hunt recalls. "I didn't feel any pain until the next day." When he woke up, his mouth was caked in thick, papery sheets. "Like you know how those snakes be shedding their skin," he says. "But I had a thousand dollars, plus $360 for the gig, plus $200 in tips." To top it all off, he had a new trick in his arsenal.