The Vermont Cynic

Alvin: A True Account with a New York City Street Musician


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It was the part of the night in New York City when all the outsiders jump back on the Path Train to the quiet of the suburbs. City dwellers were making their final rounds and poets were just beginning to write; it was the hour of love and unlove, the loneliest or sweetest part of the evening. In the East Village, on the corners, late-night musicians were blowing their horns, the sounds seeming to coagulate into one long narrative, floating into the moist summer air with the same ease and comfort as the steam leaving the manholes; a real lesson in story telling. Somewhere out there the greatest musician in the world was playing, Coltrane’s secret disciple, posing as a human jukebox, acting upon the input of a quarter. Some passerby yelled out standards like “Take the A-Train,” and some hollered “shut the fuck up!” while others walked by indifferently, numb and unaware. Poised on a sidewalk near the corner of Houston and Allen a man named Alvin played his tenor, begging his lady to come to him; he made his plea into the night hoping that the lack of walls in the venue might allow for his cry to reach her wherever she may be.

“That’s the grace of being able to play out here,” Alvin told me, “not a muthafucker to play for ‘cept myself.” He stood in a black trench coat wearing sun-glasses to protect his eyes from the darkness. Alvin held the image of a Charles Mingus, large and volatile, while simultaneously showing elements of tenderness like a man who would shake your hand after beating your face in. His black skin illuminated itself like fresh paint on a car, significant in any light. Alvin’s face looked as though it had been born aged, a victim of gravity that seemed to pull the skin around his eyes and mouth forever downward as if he was destined from inception to play the blues. There was no hair on his head, and his voice was gully like a deep bark. “Angelina,” he said shaking his head, “I wish I knew where she was right now.” And then he blew a couple of sailing phrases, not so much responding to his own call, but rather acting as a translator, conveying his wish in a language that only the two of them could understand.

***

I discovered Alvin on the way back to my apartment that night, taken aback by his large presence and the idiosyncrasies of his sound, the ways in which he would steadily build to a climax only to cut himself off immediately and abruptly before he got there; it was as if he was constructing the tallest building in the world but always refusing to finish it, never giving it a roof, never cutting off the possibility of going higher. After he would stop playing he would wait a couple of minutes, look around as if to make sure no one was coming, and then pick up where he had previously left off. For Alvin, climax meant writing a final chapter to his never-ending story, a farewell, a letting go, an end to his means. In Alvin’s head it was always about leaving the story-that is, the story of his life-open to possibility, closing it would mean giving up-giving up on life, love and most of all Angelina. Every night was another piece to his grand opus, a life’s work constantly in progress-instead of writing many pieces, he opted to write one long one.

After stopping to listen to him long enough for his playing to mean something, during one of his pauses I said “Hey man, that’s beautiful.” Alvin had no reaction to me, glanced in my direction as if to look right through me-to him I wasn’t even there-and then just went right back to playing his horn. I stood around and waited for Alvin to pause again while simultaneously wishing that he would never pause and just play forever. Alvin’s playing felt like a whisper, there was no squealing or grunting, no speeding scale runs, just a man taking his time, more interested in coaxing and healing than in screaming-he wanted her to come to him and she was delicate not abrasive.

***

“Muthafucker you been standin’ there for about an hour,” Alvin said hotly, “I ain’t one of these street niggers taking requests; go home boy.”

“What’s the name of the song you were playing, who wrote it?”

“Muthafucker it don’t have a name.”

“But did you write it?”

“Yeah I wrote it, been writing it. Say, what’s your problem kid?”

“Nothing, sorry, I just wanted to listen.” I began to walk off.

“Shit muthafucker, I’m sorry man, you can listen if you’d like. The name’s Alvin.” He then extended a hand that looked like it could crush rocks, and shook-or rather enveloped-mine.

“Michael,” I said. It was around 4:30 in the morning and the world was turning differently than it had the hour before I encountered Alvin. I was tired but Alvin’s playing offered a far greater solace than sleep. Alvin picked his horn back up and wrapped his lips around the mouthpiece. He was taking part in a cutting contest against the night, and whatever the wind carried-the sound of car horns, the river, the moaning of a good one-night stand-Alvin would play on, resilient, never backing down.

***

At the next pause I asked Alvin where he was from. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his trench-coat pocket, took one out, lit it, and with a big poof of smoke said “nowhere.” I told him that everyone had to be from somewhere and he just shook his head like a teacher disappointed that his student missed the point, and kept on smoking. I then rephrased the question, figuring if I was more specific I might get an answer: “Where were you born?”

He took a last drag of his cigarette, threw it down and stomped it. For the first time Alvin took his sunglasses off and looked at me wide-eyed: “Muthafucker,” he said calmly, “I wasn’t born, I was manifested.” Then he picked up his horn from the case in which he placed it and began to play again. Like his music, I couldn’t extract an exact meaning from what he said, but I felt it; and it is through feeling that we really come to understand each other. So I took his reply and cupped it in my hands like a little kid might catch a fire fly; I wanted to keep it, stare at it and examine it, but I knew that if I held onto it too long the light would go out-like his sound, his words were better off not trapped.

***

“Angelina, Angelina,” he chanted coolly into the fading night sky, still black but not too far from being overtaken by the sun and the blue of day. I had lost track of time completely and didn’t care. “Angelina, Angelina,” he said.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“A lady I been looking for fur the last twenty years.”

“Where might she be?”

“Don’t know, only met her once.”

I laughed slightly, “You only met her once and you’ve been looking for her for the last twenty years?”

“Yeah muthafucker,” he snapped defensively, “She was the only one who ever heard me the way I was meant to be heard; you too young to understand what that means.” He placed his horn down in its case and lit another cigarette.

“Maybe.”

“Whutch you mean ‘maybe’ mutherfucker?” he said as he exhaled, “You just a kid, you ain’t old enough to understand the essence of sound. We all play for one person and one person only, not for you mutherfuckin’ spectators; you guys are just eavesdroppers on a private conversation that we allow you to listen in on. Your ‘maybe’ ain’t shit; if you knew what the fuck I was talking about you wouldn’t have chuckled. One person can hear you right and one person only, that’s understanding mutherfucker-you don’t let that go.” He took four deep drags and threw his cigarette in the street. A slight drizzle began to fall out of nowhere, each drop hitting the ground and gently dispersing until the drops began to blend together into a thin wet blanket. “Perfect,” Alvin said slowly, grinning as he picked up his horn and began to play again.

***

There was an early morning ease about the streets as morning began its ritual takeover. Doctors and police officers were changing shifts as the morning crew came to replace the owls of the night. Like a vampire Alvin began to shudder, threatening disintegration, against the faint protruding light of the sun. Taking another breather from the horn Alvin said “Shit man, morning again,” as if morning was an unwelcome visitor that always came at the wrong time. It must have been somewhere in the realm of the hour of six, but I did not care to check my watch; time is always a reminder of things that have to be done, and I did not want to be anywhere else, did not want to be brought back down to earth. The drizzle had passed and Alvin had already smoked his last cigarette. “Well here we go mutherfucker,” Alvin said, signaling that the next few phrases would be his last of the night. He pursed his lips around the mouthpiece and blew; the melody drifted in inches, even-tempered, ascending and pervading the universe ever so patiently. Alvin’s last words of the night were never a last effort, but rather a promise, a pact with the fading moon to return again when the sky darkened, to sing to sweet Angelina until they found each other. The final movement was relentless, full of pathos; an unwillingness to give up until his soul was satisfied. And somewhere out there Lady Angelina was combing a flowerbed outside her apartment window, running her fingers through the pedals, inhaling the smell of life. A breeze was probably coming through, and in the distance it carried a faint, familiar sound that she could not quite make out. The familiarity would keep her returning to the window night after night, through the early morning, until the sound came close enough and clearly whispered her name.

Blowing a final phrase and then abruptly stopping as if realizing he was late for a doctor’s appointment, Alvin pried the sax from his mouth and packed it up. The sax was like an extension of his body, an extra limb, as difficult to remove as an arm or a leg. He shut his case and then turned and looked at me, moved his head up and down, and said “You need some sleep mutherfucker.” With that he turned around and walked west, taking his time, not forcing a single step. I didn’t bother to yell goodbye, and started off in the other direction. “Goodbye” always signifies an end, a close to possibility, and that was the antithesis of Alvin. I looked up and saw the last shards of moon in the sky and knew that night would come again, that on another corner on another street Alvin would play, that the story would continue.

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Alvin: A True Account with a New York City Street Musician