I play mornings at the harbour, lunchtimes outside Duke’s Arcade, afternoons and evenings in the subway by the station. Two, maybe three days a week. If it’s raining or too windy, I head straight down to the subway in the early afternoon. I like it there. In winter the sun fills the atrium by the bus stop and runs down the stairs, making ripples of light on the grey non-slip floor of the tunnel. It’s warm there, it echoes and you don’t need a license.
Nothing stays the same in the tunnel for long. People walk past me in pairs or alone. Some stop and listen or make a request, others barely notice me sitting and playing. Some look at the signs – the backlit banners on the tiled wall over. Lit up from behind, framed with smooth brushed metal, their colourful slogans get under my skin. So who will you call? and The choice should be easy. One after another, they bump up against me. They talk like they know me.
They don’t know me.
So who will you call? That’s an ad for free minutes. It means nothing to me, with no shortage of minutes and no fancy phone. And as for my friends, well, most of the old crowd are living away. I’m out of the grip of the mass demographic – a slippery freedom – escaping the nod of the bright, knowing sign. They gather their data and I gather mine.
A lady approaches. She walks along heavily, pulling her suit jacket closed. She’s holding on tight to a rolled magazine, a property one from the basket upstairs. I play the Moonlight Sonata, revised for guitar. I already know that she likes this sonata. I remember from when she first told it to me.
So I play and the story unfolds. The music reminds her of a man she once knew. He’s not around anymore – not living, or he never kept in touch. Say he never kept in touch – that can be a strange thing in some situations, for example if he was like a father to her once. This guy could play the Moonlight Sonata on the piano – it was his signature piece, you might say. And once, on a trip to Dunedin, they took a tour of one of those old stately homes. Upstairs was an antique grand piano. The man in question, this man the girl knew, just stepped over the rope barrier and went over to the piano and started playing it like he owned the place. The notes echoed around and someone said ho-ly! And maybe it did sound kind of holy to her then, the way it filled the tired house, arpeggios rising and descending, but she got the feeling it wouldn’t be smart to admit it and afterwards she heard another person in the group say ‘ten points for originality,’ and she was glad she hadn’t done anything embarrassing – given a round of applause or gone for her hanky or whatever. Because she’s shy. She’s never had the courage of her convictions.
At any rate she hasn’t thought of that holiday in ages, and hearing me play the Moonlight Sonata again gives her a strange sort of prickle, because it’s like time has gone slack, like a loop in a thread, and she’s been thrown back to the relationship she had with this man – an odd sort of father figure who made bold, comic gestures and infuriated her.
The woman slows right down and stops. She listens but doesn’t give money. Then three men behind her give two dollars apiece, and one stops and tells me how for years his old dad had this very sonata on a small, fattish record. A 78, in a red paper sleeve. His dad would get home from the Tramways Hotel and turn it up loud. Then he’d whistle in time and crudely conduct as he looked out the window at his view of the town. The record would crackle. My old dad, the man says, then he runs for the 5:25.
My brother once told me I could make a good living by paying attention to the patterns in the songs that made the money. He was holding forth after dinner at my niece’s place, saying how in wet weather people like to listen to so and so, and that in certain areas you’ll find people who want to listen to such and such, and how there are patterns to everything just waiting for someone to figure them out. The idea depressed me. I set out to do the opposite of what he recommended.
I stopped playing songs I had stories for. I changed my whole set. But the stories accumulated, day after day.
Moorea, Blackbird, Cavatina.
Hundreds of people just walk straight past me but the odd one gives me a look out of nowhere. I can see them approaching a mile away. It’s like they’re walking through arrivals and I’m a waiting valet and my sign is big and glossy and emblazoned with their name. They tell me their memories. Sometimes they speak while I’m playing the tune. They spill their guts and look nostalgic. And the next time I see them I mostly remember.
It hasn’t made me rich, of course.
The choice should be easy. That’s a sign for a gadget. A clear, slim tablet promising soundtracks by instinct. I watch it while I’m playing; it shows a girl in a dress against a backdrop which changes from rainy to windy to sunny to night. Cityscapes and countrysides, dance halls and carnivals. It pulses and shifts and then the girl starts to change – she’s a school kid, a traveller; she gets bigger and shrinks. I talked to a woman who explained it to me. They’re selling software that knows you – that helps you to choose. My brother would love it. Predictive technology stretching its legs.
Sometimes I wait for the sign to give a crackle. I think of low muffled whispers mistakenly recorded onto tape.
A man walks towards me. He’s got his earphones in. I see him as I finish the Moonlight Sonata, so I start something else. It’s a similar tune – a classical piece called Romanza, more commonly known as the Spanish Romance. A whole lot of people have stories for this one. It’s a piece that a lot of guitar teachers like.
This man and his brother had a tough time as kids but one had a thick skin and one couldn’t cope. The older boy went to a home for while, and after that he was always much further behind. He couldn’t catch up, and he blamed everyone. And he tried to delete things in various ways.
At a party he crushed his brother’s hand in a drawer, and the crush was so bad that the boy couldn’t write for a year. A therapist got hold of an old Nippon Gakki to help him recover the movement. Then wasn’t it nice to see the younger one doing so well. And, play that song, Tom, you know that nice one that I like – the Spanish Romance. And the older boy moved off to Sydney. Things worked out over there. He came back a new person. And every few years he’d just rewrite the disks. A new job. Another trip. A new wife. A fresh start. Like it was easier just to start over each time.
My brother walks past me. He gives me a nod.
Sometimes I trip over chords or my fingertips slide on the strings. I’ll never have total control of that hand. But people look up when they hear a mistake. It’s like they’ve only just realised there’s somebody there. They hit their purses and wallets and pockets for pieces of change. And they’re happy to find some. I usually just have my card,someone says, heading up towards the train.