So I'm sitting here in the Portland Coffee House on Adler and Broadway in downtown Portland. Just enjoying an Almond Mocha something and a cream cheese bagel. This place will be my office for the next couple of weeks. Free WiFi access and a central location with big windows make it the perfect impromptu office. Just a stone throw away is Pioneer Square, one of the most interesting people-watching places I know. But it's cold out and I prefer to stay in the warm.
As the evening draws in a girl with a metal leg has taken her place by a telephone kiosk, setting her stage for another gig to the passers-by, most of whom won't pay her the slightest bit of attention. Her guitar is strewn with stickers and is arguably in better shape than she is. She tunes up, then starts to sing, and boy does she sing.
A few minutes pass and no one has yet placed even a dime in her scraggy red hat she placed in front of her. Passers-by glance at her, trying to look distracted by something else so that they can pass by without paying her for her song. It's not especially cold outside, but it's not so warm that I'd want to be playing guitar.
A man steps into the phone booth and places a call. He's an artsy looking man, the kind of person I would expect could easily afford a mobile phone, but has taken the decision not to have one so as not to support the corporations that rule the digital airwaves. He looks serious and he makes his call, but at no point does he notice the girl as she continues to play to her passing audience.
A homeless man is the first to place money in her hat. He stops to listen for a moment, she glances at him and acknowledges his contribution. He nods his head to, it might have been to the rhythm if only he were sober enough to keep the beat. He steps back clumsily into a wooden sign for Chu's Chinese Restaurant where the Sinner menu is served all day according to the sign. He steadies himself on the sign, then turns and wanders off in the direction of Pioneer Square.
It's getting darker, the passing cars have their headlights on. A few more people stop to give the busker a little appreciation and spare change. I buy her a coffee, add some milk then take it out to her with some sugar and a plastic spoon.
"It's cold and you look like you could do with a coffee," I say.
"Hey, thanks dude." Her eyes look at me and she smiles broadly. Two paths that might not ordinarily cross meet in the briefest of moments with a coffee and a smile.
"It's not much but it'll keep you warm for a while I think." I place the coffee beside her with the spoon and sugar then walk back into the warmth of the coffee house and take my seat by the window once more while she adds sugar and stirs her coffee. She takes a sip then puts it back down and carries on with her show.
Her songs barely break through the noise of the Mocha's in making and the quiet jazz that mingles in the warm air with the aroma of fresh coffee. A few more people pass by and place money into her scraggly red hat. I wish I could hear her as she reaches for high notes, passionately strangling the neck of her six-string guitar for the chords that will pay for her dinner. It's a performance worth watching, worth every last cent of the coffee beside her.
Three dreadlocked guys sit on the chairs in front of the coffee house, box seats for this particular show. One of them comes into the coffee house to buy the drink that will buy them all the right to sit there for a while. He's followed in by a chill as if accompanied by an unseen ghost. Outside his friends exchange banter with this afternoons performer.
She begins to sing again and her new audience clap and whoop in appreciation, raising two beer cans and a coffee in a toast to her music. She closes her eyes and cranes her neck back as she sways to the notes of her song. The lyrics of her song are swallowed up by the surrounding streets, disappearing into between the crowds of people, the passing cars, and the standing buildings like people getting off a bus at a stop. She's singing for money right now, but I have a feeling she'd be singing no matter what. Her metal leg and scraggly red hat, that is slowly collecting a few dollars, look like they have seen a few stories and songs unfold.
Eventually, it's dark outside. She stops singing and smiles at her newfound temporary fans sitting on the chairs in front of the coffee house. She takes a few moments and slowly lights a cigarette taking a long slow drag of smoke deep into her lungs. Then she picks up the scraggly red cap putting the money into her pocket before slowly packing away her guitar, standing awkwardly to her feet collecting herself before walking off into the darkness of the evening.
There is no after-show party for this performer. This show is simply over. But missed it then don't worry, there will probably be another show later on this evening someplace not too far from here.