Curtis Cartier catches up with some enterprising Santa Cruz street musicians.
By Curtis Cartier
Santa Cruz is a street performer's paradise. Some are here for a brief night until their Greyhound leaves in the morning. Others have been busking on the same block for years. But all of them have a story.
Cal Harris has two lovers--Artemis, his pretty blonde girlfriend, and Rosie, his chrome-and-wood slide guitar. Other than the few dollars in Rosie's case, though, he doesn't have much else. "I pick on Rosie all day long and she don't complain," Harris says before launching into a bluegrass-plucking frenzy. "If I picked on the other one, well, then, she'd probably get upset." While a stream of tourists pours past on the corner of Pacific and Lincoln, most of them holding shopping bags crammed with gifts or cookies crammed with chocolate chips, Harris says he'd rather go hungry than panhandle for change. He talks about his move from "Moh-dest-oh" to Santa Cruz like it's the annunciation of Christ. The burning heat of the Central Valley was as uncomfortable as the $250 fine levied for playing music downtown without a permit. And so he headed for the coast. "Whenever the economy's good, people are happy to give a bit," he says matter-of-factly. "But I could never bring myself to just sit out here and beg. At least I'll play a tune or two."
Coughing out a raspy rendition of "Go Down Moses," Mike, a dreadheaded twentysomething, holds down the flower bed outside El Palomar on Pacific. He jitters out old-testament favorites on his cracked acoustic guitar, but soon becomes agitated. "There's no way you work for the paper, man," he says, looking at the wrong side of my business card. "Whatever! This is activist music! It's about building community!" It seems while some performers are happy to offer up their life story for a mention in the paper and a few odd nickels, for others, life on the street brings a healthy dose of paranoia. And after offering a few excuses about "people who've been looking for me," Mike gets spooked and makes his escape.
Hot To Squat
Wes remembers a time he and his troupe of nomadic squatters could pull in $200 a day strumming six-strings and crooning the blues, although with anywhere from four to 10 mouths to feed, that money went quick. Today, the grubby group's ever-evolving lineup, now featuring five male baritones, two female sopranos and one kitten meowing in falsetto, is constantly looking for ways to bum a buck. "We play folk and bluegrass because it's a lot of times about jumping trains and wandering, which is what our lives are all about," says Wes, to the agreement of his ensemble. On the road and in the streets for five years, the group of true punk rockers views homelessness as less a tragedy than an adventure. They also take credit for many of Santa Cruz's current street performance laws, which they say were enacted after the clan was making a fortune at certain prime downtown corners. "Sometimes in the winter it can suck not having a house," says Zach, who joined the crew only a day before. "But most of the time you're having too much fun to notice."
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