The brim of Emilio Nieto’s cowboy hat brushes my forehead as we bend our heads together and sing: Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody. Closing our eyes, we reach for the harmony that belies the words. I got some money ’cause I just got paid….
Nieto is singing and strumming to an imaginary packed house. I pretend I am in the shower, with my soap-on-a-rope microphone, or in my car with rolled-up windows.
In reality we are in Chicago, just off Michigan Avenue, in a red granite subway tunnel, serenading evening commuters who bustle past. A man stops and sits on his lunch cooler, his back against the wall, sipping from a cold beer. With his plaster-stained work boots tapping, he calls out the occasional request. To him, our music is a happy-hour treat, an oasis of nearly free entertainment between his work-a-day world and the long train ride home.
We finish our song, our voices rolling down the long tunnel, followed by our fan’s solitary applause. A woman in a yellow dress stops in her rush for the train and drops a dollar in Emilio’s open guitar case. A man with a coil of cable over his shoulder empties change from his pocket. A sharply dressed man from the nearby Board of Trade stops and digs for his wallet, riffling through twenties and fives and ones, finally settling on a five before running for his train, tie flapping and cell phone to his ear.
Don’t know much about history, Emilio sings. I join him. Don’t know much biology. Don’t know much about a science book. Don’t know much about the French I took.
I am gleeful, swept up by the childlike fun of singing in a space where my voice reverberates from the walls. I reach for the harmony and hold it for a phase–But I do know that I love you. And I know that if you love me, too–then chicken out and fall back to the melody–what a wonderful world this would be.
Emilio murmurs encouragement. “You’re doing fine, honey,” he says. “Let it out.”
Occasionally I soar, sounding, in my mind, like a Southern Baptist soloist, in spite of my Yankee upbringing and middling voice. As our music resonates down the tunnel, people smile. But still I falter, unaccustomed to singing in public.
I have come to Chicago for this, the chance to perform on the street, to “busk,” as singing for one’s supper is called. Emilio is a full-time busker, a man who does well enough to have the American dream of a suburban house and a two-year-old Saturn. A man who sings better than most, who writes his own songs, who, with a few lucky breaks, would be a star.
“I’m not out there because I’m needy,” he says. “I’m out there because I’m living by my wits. I’m making a living doing what I love.”
He strums a chord. Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone, he sings. I wait for the chorus before I slide in. I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end….
Emilio has been doing this for 20 years. He has a permit and a schedule. If he changes locations, his fans ask after him. “Where you been, man? We missed you.” At times they even stop to sing along. They show him pictures of their children. A pair of women sing out the first few phrases of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and Emilio and I sing to their backs as they dance down the corridor to the trains.
As rush hour peaks, so does the attention. People are staring at me intently until Emilio gives me a nudge–and I realize I’m standing in front of the sign that directs riders to the trains. My ego, which had started to expand, returns to its rightful size. “Train to Indiana?” Emilio asks a befuddled family. “This way,” he says, pointing with the neck of his guitar.
I cross my arms, then uncross them, unsure what to do without the prop of a guitar. Another man stops, leans against the wall, listens, then saunters over, smiles at me, and drops a couple of bills in the guitar case.
For me this is a lark. I do not depend on the take for my rent, nor do I have dreams of being a professional singer. My voice is decent, but you wouldn’t want to buy anything I might record. Mine is a voice most people think they have as they look in the car mirror so they can watch themselves sing along with Aretha or Dolly or Hank.
Emilio’s voice, though, is a big, round baritone. He walks into the crowds, makes eye contact, calls out “thank you” and “God bless” to the ones who give money. He sees a tired-looking woman and sings especially for her. Under the boardwalk, down by the sea… on a blanket with my baby, is where I’ll be. We sing over the blare of fire trucks and end-of-day chatter, then more quietly under the announcements of incoming and outgoing trains. Otherwise, he says, people get mad, and shower him with dirty looks instead of dollar bills.
Emilio makes more on cold and windy days, he says, perhaps because people feel sympathy for his frozen feet and fingers. Today it is mild, yet within two hours my throat is sore and the hardness of the concrete has crept up my legs and into my back. Emilio, though, is just getting started. At 53, he has arthritis and diabetes, yet he plays the evening rush hourevery day, leaving just in time to make it to his 7 o’clock church service. He has his own ethics, his own code of conduct.
“I don’t want to make eye contact to where they think I’m asking for money,” he says. “If they want to tip me, that’s great, but I don’t want them to think I’m asking for it.”
He has been locked up, in spite of his license, and he has been accosted by crazed beggars fighting for a spot. There is competition on the streets and in the tunnels, with performers vying with homeless people for locations that are safe and warm and generous. Emilio must factor in acoustics, too, and the logistics of parking his car and lugging his guitar. He shows up in rain and snow, on days when he must retune his guitar between songs as the wood adapts to the weather. He has found odd things in his case amongst the coins, most notably a cast-off wedding ring.
The wind blows my skirt around my knees and I lift my voice. I pretend I am alone, that I am part of the background, that my music is coming from the speakers overhead or invisibly embedded in the walls. I pretend that people wish me well, that they find me amusing. I open my throat and channel my inner diva, even though I am unglamorously short and middle-aged. Somewhere in all of this I lose my inhibitions. I don’t care if people approve.
Well, you could have been anything that you wanted to, we sing, and I can tellllll… the way you do the things you do.
My freedom comes from being an imposter, of course. If I relied on this, I would create a shtick, a persona, like Emilio, with his cowboy hat and his bonhomie. Like Emilio, I would devise lyrical twists to break the boredom, and perhaps to see who was listening. I would find the regulars with my eyes, comment on their lovely hats, their daring ties. I would mug for their babies.
“Don’t smile or someone will think you’re happy,” Emilio calls after a somber woman, who looks back, grins, and shakes her head, released from her troubles for the moment.
I rest while Emilio plays a gospel song he wrote. You like the music? Toss in a dollar. But not from too high. Not from so high that the wind carries your bill onto the platform. It’s too hard to chase. Likewise, to have a drink, even water, means a trip to the bathroom, and going to the bathroom means time away from singing, and that costs money.
It is a long four hours before Emilio is ready to stop, before he asks me what last song I would like to sing with him. I tell him, thinking that for this at least I will remember the harmony. So we begin, and now, at the end of the evening, with the last commuters straggling past, the harmony is there, and our entwined voices roll and echo down the tunnels and into the night, with the trains.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound….
© 2005, Janine Latus, all rights reserved.