“What happened here is I left to go to the bathroom, and now you’re in my spot.”
The voice emerged from the steady stream of tourists at San Francisco’s Pier 39, and I had to look twice when I saw where it was coming from. He was at least seven feet tall in his platform shoes, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, mask, cape, pantaloons—every inch of him covered in sequence, like an oversized art fair collaboration between Don Quixote and Ziggy Stardust. His size was made even more intimidating by the fact that Pete and I were squatting on a guitar case at the edge of the sidewalk, instruments on our knees, trying to figure out what song of ours would be most appropriate to play while hundreds of tourist walked by, their waists at eye level. As I squinted up into the shadows behind his sparkling mask, I thought I could make out the faint outline of human lips moving, but the sound of his voice boomed from a speaker tucked somewhere in his beltline. It broadcasted loudly into the crowded street, so everyone could hear the concern of this giant, dazzling, moving statue as he discovered two weary musicians huddled in his corner of Jefferson Street.
“We’re sorry,” we gushed. “We didn’t know. We just want to play a few songs.”
He seemed to look us over with his empty eye sockets, and then asked about our music. We explained that we were traveling, far from home. The stoic look on the giant’s mask remained frozen, but his voice grew warmer. He said he knew what it’s like to live off CD sales. “Maybe we can work together,” he offered. “I can do my thing while you play.”
We launched into “The News about Michael, Married in Mexico”—upbeat, straightforward—and sang into the babble of the stream of people. It backed up briefly as a small crowd gathered to watch Pete and I play the mandolin and guitar while a shiny ogre waved and shook hands. A guy crouched beside me, giving a thumbs up to his friend, who took a picture. Then the current pushed, and the crowd moved on, our music mixing with laughter, the cries of children, and the booming voice of a seven-foot-tall behemoth wearing the skins of several deflated disco balls.
At the end of the song, a woman who had been standing down the sidewalk approached us. She was selling boat tours, and couldn’t shout over us. She asked us to stop. It was all too much for our Midwestern sense of propriety. We packed up and walked away. The giant wished us luck and assumed control of his spot; the woman hawked her boat tours in a hoarse voice to the moving mass of people.
It had seemed like a good idea—singing a few songs to people as they walked about a busy street—but this place already had its performers. On a poorly planned tour of last minute shows it became our daily task to find a place for our music, far from the glacier-scraped landscapes where we first got our bearings. I wondered if our songs would make sense here.
We tried one more, “Saint Anthony,” outside a large bakery, close to a group that had gathered to gawk through a large, glass wall as the bakers shaped their loaves. The scent of baking sourdough bread filled our lungs as we inhaled to sing each line, but our final note was met with a shouted warning that we would be fined for playing where we were. It may or may not have been true, but we accepted defeat. We made our way to the car, and left San Francisco.