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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

One of the Talented Ones: Artist Justin Gordon shows Darrel L. Washington his work.

Where the Streets Have No Shame

Two years after the passage of restrictions on local street entertainment, there's no shortage of acts keeping it weird downtown. Welcome to Pacific Avenue, your No. 1 source of free summer entertainment--whether you like it or not.

By Sarah Phelan

On a sunny summer's afternoon last week, a brief stroll along downtown's main drag was all it took to confirm what we already suspected: Santa Cruz's street performer scene is alive and hopping.

Chilling outside O'Neill's, we witnessed five sassy saxophonists riff it up, while between the Cooper House and the Metro bus station, four guitarists--some tuneful, others less than they outta be--flashed mostly toothless smiles as they serenaded an almost nonstop stream of passersby. In front of New Leaf, once the site of the now eternally shifting hippie corner, three stomp musicians were playing paint buckets, wastepaper cans and cooking pots, while outside Artisans, the famously costumed accordionist, a.k.a. the Great Morgani, was hamming it up as "The Accowdionist," complete with black-and-white cowsuit.

All of which suggests that the downtown street performer scene is just as weird as ever, two years after the passage of a set of ordinances that critics feared would put the mockers on the weird factor--which arguably is the heart and soul of our seaside town.

As it happens, there wasn't a single juggler or bubbler in sight on Pacific Avenue on this particular afternoon, an absence that was noteworthy for reasons that will soon become evident and which are related to the history of street performance in this town, a tradition that's rich, colorful--and immortalized in bronze thanks to Marche Mason's statue of saw-player Tom Scribner, which now sits in permanent splendor outside Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Like many a street performer in this town, Scribner wasn't just a talented musician, but a person of many parts--the plaque at his feet describes him as "a lumberjack, writer, political activist, editor and humorist," which may explain why a fresh cut rose and a copy of the People's Weekly were lying on his lap. Or maybe a left-wing-romantic was in a statue-littering mood that day. Either way, Scribner, who used to play his saw outside Bookshop back in the day, would probably be more than a little surprised to know that his favored spot has been declared a free-speech zone, thus exempting it from ordinances that were enacted post-Sept. 11 to set restrictions on when, where and how panhandlers, political tablers and performers could do their thing on the street.

Do the Hustle

This sunny day in June revealed, however, that ordinances or no ordinances, Santa Cruz can rest assured that plenty of spontaneous and entertaining performers are keeping the street weird as it ever was.

Opposite Cinema 9, a dude dressed like a cowboy was teaching passersby chess while seated at a folding chess table.

"I'm a professional chess bum," said the dude who goes by the name of Cowboy Tim, as he taught Jacinto Arias the finer points of the game. Nodding in appreciation as a passerby donated crisp green bills, this chess-playing cowboy noted that he makes more money panhandling, but chess gives him more dignity.

Nearby, a guy called Kevin Kmetz was playing the shamisen, an instrument that was apparently adopted by blind shamans in Japan about 100 years ago, and has led to the development of the tsugaru shamisen style, which Kmetz teaches when he's not busking.

In an alcove opposite the Octagon Museum, Vince Donald was doing kung fu moves to his Walkman, a dance familiar to longtime residents of the Cruz. Less well known, perhaps is Donald's ability to fold dollar bills into pinky rings.

"But I don't make money this way," said Donald. "Car repair is my real talent."

Outside the Cooper House tunnel, a spot favored by musicians of all stripes on account of its architecturally sculpted acoustics, a straw-hat wearing Cal Harris took a break from picking tunes on Rosie, his dobro guitar.

"First, I did it out of necessity, now it's mostly out of love," said Harris of performing on the street. "This is how I get to know people, this is my big screen TV, the biggest live-screen TV I've ever had."

Harris' only beef with playing on Pacific Avenue is that he can no longer sit close enough to restaurants to tell people the name of the pieces he plays, "which are all instrumental, which is why it would make a difference to people, if they knew the pieces' names. But now I can't, because there's some rotten pickers out there who don't care if they run every last one of a restaurant's customers off," he said, referring to one of the scenarios that apparently led to the passage of the ordinances that require performers with collection hats, boxes or other display devices to remain at a 10-foot setback from downtown businesses, not to mention move along each hour.

The Accidental Entertainers

Across the street, a guy blasting music from a ghetto blaster strapped to the back of his cruiser bike evoked annoyed stares from moviegoers waiting to see the third Harry Potter film, while a lady whose motorized wheelchair had wind chimes hanging off the back was rewarded with approving smiles. These folks fall into the unintentional performance category, but are no less loved than the baritone guitarist who sings "Cowboy in the red hat didn't give me no dough" or the dude whose dreadlocks are weighted down by hundreds of beads--and who demanded $50 to be shot by a photographer.

Then there are those in the deliberate performance category like the Reverend Dr. The Electronic Galaxy Jason who typically can be found outside Gelato's giving "psychic analyses and healing" with the help of decks of tarot cards and a bunch of mystical-looking crystals.

And finally, there are the spontaneous performances like the stomp musicians who reportedly came together for the first time last week outside New Leaf, with one guy playing an inverted plastic drum, to which was taped a sign saying "Drums not Bombs," another banging on empty buckets, pots and lids, while a third read poetry aloud.

Branching Into Wings

It was enough to get Frank "The Great Morgani" Lima asking, "Am I keeping it weird enough?" even as he discussed the costume he would be wearing for his next performance.

"I'm branching into wings," he said. "Eight-foot wings of the kind a gargoyle might wear, dressed up with a pinstripe suit."

While he was talking, Morgani played up against the wall of Artisans, a location that he admitted was in violation of the downtown ordinances, "which want to place performers at the street's curbside," as Morgani put it.

"I refuse to do that, because I don't want to be playing into stores, and causing people to turn backs to stores to watch me," said Morgani, who described this year's street scene as "a mix of Beirut or Carmel, with New Leaf as the dividing line."

Beirut or Carmel, the scene definitely gets our vote for best free entertainment--though don't forget to put a dollar in the hat, if the performance pleases you. That way we'll all help keep it weird.

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From the June 23-30, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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