The Trumpet Man
Where: Congress Ave 1512, TX 78704 Austin (United States). When: on 30-10-2009.
Written at 08-12-2010 by Mary Jane Watson
Labels - trumpet street musician austin texas cupcake inspiring stories short short inspiring stories motivational stories
There’s a magic about street musicians that binds us—we are lulled into their sounds, their voices, yet are too afraid to treat them as mere mortals. They are more mysterious, more mystifying than anyone else in the city. Jazzed into a daze we pass them because our inner snobs tell us we can ignore the timbre notes, yet our eyes wander to their swelling forms, and linger on their closed eyelids, heads nodding to their own drums.
If we’re daring enough, we break that silence with a few crumpled bills and coins dropped into their instrument cases, but stroll by without another thought. But that’s where they get you. You start to wonder about their lives, and why they are on the street, why they chose the violin, or the trumpet, where they came from, their names.
I was helpless to the lure of the trumpet man playing under the neon stars of a brick split building.
It was our last night, and the morning would bring All Souls’ Day. I was gallivanting around Austin with the rest of my friends—just a couple college kids who love art, Hemingway, and Pollock. We ran down to South Congress from the inner city where we were told all the best boutiques and shops were for costumes. The locals didn’t tell us which bus to take. Our muscles behind our shins ached as we gave up the search for decent disguises.
Instead, we turned our attentions to a neighboring antique shop, Uncommon Objects. As we walked in, a man with a black case rested his back against the brick wall. He opened his black case and wiped a silver mouthpiece. I stared, frozen by his young face scruffy with a midnight shadow, the golden instrument in his hand. Dark eyes like his that haven’t watched many years pass couldn’t be homeless. I wanted to ask his name, what the silver cup was for, why Austin, why me?
Instead I followed my friends who I lost inside what looked like God’s collection of petty human things. From ceiling to floor, relics of ages past waited to be glanced at, brushed by, and overlooked. A love letter, torn at the folds and written in Edwardian script was hidden in a cigar box, white fishnet gloves rested lifeless, one over the other. I put them on, but my hands were too broad. Hanging in one corner was a framed painting of a man with a scruff beard, square jaw, and hard eyes. He reminded me of the man who sat down outside. He was there when we walked out one by one a half hour later.
Street musicians intrigue us just enough so we have to keep looking, piecing together bits of them in our minds in two second glances. Out of politeness we try not to appear interested. We sneakily snap pictures as they play when they aren’t looking up. The young man playing the trumpet looked up and I turned my head back to the store … I needed an opening—I was too shy and out of practice to approach for no reason, but dropping cash would break some spell and stop me from entering a conversation. Then I remembered the painting, the face I’d seen in the shop.
I ran back into the store and clicked a quick picture of the painting. As it was an antique store, the painting was probably of no one from Texas, but they were similar. It’s only fair to share the findings with the man in question.
I tiptoed towards him and waited for him to pause. “Hey.”
“Hi,” he said with raised eyebrows. His voice was softer than I expected, not as deep.
“I don’t mean to bother you, but I found this picture in the shop and I think it looks like you.”
“Yeah?” I turned the screen of my camera to him. His eyes widened, “Who knows? It does kinda look like me.”
“Come on!” The girl who shouted wanted to get back to the party on 6th Street.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Kevin. Nice meetin’ you.” He shook my hand, and I was hooked.
Even though I shuffled back to the group, sullen, I couldn’t get him out of my head. I didn’t want to rip myself away from the siren’s call, yet my friends dragged me back to the bus stop. I shook my head, but it was no use—the name stuck. My mind fought kicking and screaming. I could see imagined, blurry images in my mind of the people crowding around averting their eyes, snapping peripheral glances at the man with the golden brass. They would forever ignore him, fighting against the trumpeter’s call. Thankfully (and probably because I wouldn’t shut up about it), another girl in our group wanted to stay a little longer. Melissa and I hustled back to the shops, and she took off and left me to my curiosity.
His eyes widened as I approached again. No, he didn’t mind if I sat next to him. No, go right on ahead. Like a child I asked what and why. With patience he showed me what the plunger, straight mute, and wa wa mute were. He procured their different sounds and even revealed that anyone can play music on any instrument by pulling from his bag a kid’s toy trumpet that had piano keys. He dueled the sounds with the toy harmonica and unleashed a fervor of alluring tones. When he paused I continued asking questions.
“On the street,” he paused, “trumpet is the shit.”
The cars roared past as I listened on the cigarette butt-decorated sidewalk, sitting next to his black scuffed boots, worn jeans, and plain collared shirt, rolled up to the elbows. His dark eyes closed as his fingers pressed the three silver buttons and his deft hands held the plunger against the bell. His hair was short in dark waves and I was enraptured. Tall, dark, and handsome—wooing me from off the sidewalk of Congress Avenue in Austin. Wooing the masquerading people who rush past. The notes fell silent as he stood and said in his soft voice, “My butt’s asleep.”
For a thirty-one-year-old he wasn’t bad looking. Hell, if I were a few years older I’d ask for his number. I found my thoughts returning to Myrtle Beach and the problems waiting for me when I flew back. I shook my head and focused on the strains and wails of the trumpet.
As we continued rambling about music and artists I learned more about him. He didn’t have a favorite type of music, loved all kinds. “Even polka?” I teased. Even polka. I asked him about old Blue Eyes. “Who doesn’t like Frank Sinatra? If you don’t like Frank Sinatra you’re a communist.” He played again. Not the only trumpet he has, just the one he practices with. I recorded him, our conversation, not wanting to lose the enchantment of the moment, of the street musician’s captivation.
“Do you do anything else or is this what you do?”
“Nah, I do other things … always got my finger in something. Always got my hand in the cookie jar.” He rubbed his face, “Doing some studio work for this guy, doing back up shit for him. Layin’ low, just livin’ the Austin lifestyle. No stress, playing music. It took me awhile to get here I tell you what.”
Every musician has a history.
“There was a point in my life where I didn’t sleep for two years. Not like drugs or anything but lots of psychedelics, beer, and working.”
He wasn’t always in Austin. He didn’t always play the trumpet. He was a chef “by trade” and had cooked all his life. From a Greek family the focus had always been on food, not finger buttons. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps he became a chef and worked twelve-hour shifts, then played all night with friends. Five in the morning, he’d return to the restaurant.
“That’s a rough schedule!” I knew all about rough schedules, but his beat mine.
He laughed, “Yeah, no shit. It’s crazy, but it worked. I was dominating at work. I was dominating in my music. But, at the same time, expending that much energy for that amount of time will catch up with you. I was convinced that it wouldn’t and like, and then it did catch up with me. I lost my brain for a minute. But it’s okay to lose it as long as you get it back. I threw it out there and then I got it back.”
We fell into a comfortable silence, a rest in a music measure. I mentioned the Halloween craziness around us. “This is the shit right now.” His eyes took in the people in costumes around us. He seemed to take in their energy, store it up for a long night.
“I don’t want to be out on the streets tonight,” I confessed.
“Aw, you’re safe. You’re probably safer on a crazier night than on a slower night. On a crazier night it’s like Woohoo! It’s like a Muppet show.”
I nodded with a noncommittal yeah but I started thinking about all the people who passed him cemented in their agendas, the Muppets. I realized they were passing me too. I was now a vagabond, another person hanging out on the street. I could live the rest of my life on that sidewalk. Kevin was fine, doing what he loved and sharing it with the people who walked on, ignoring the voice that entices them to the source. It was then that I remembered his earlier words, “Once you get patience, you get whatever you want in the end.”
I was watching Kevin taking each day as a gift to enjoy and revel in, not as a deadline. My own cemented agenda was lurking at the end of the night—we were to return tomorrow morning. I was dealing with six classes, club meetings, magazine meetings, people’s writing, expenses, and on top of all that, I had to face the Fight: a horrendous argument that ended by a cracking slap across my friend’s face and his silence. He refused to speak to me.
I was in a new editing job, working at school, completing assignments, attending classes, day after day following a rigid schedule that kept me hopping through hoops. I took on even more to ignore the pain of his silence. I walked around with earphones blaring Sum 41 so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. They all knew, wanted to know. And there Kevin was, sitting Indian style with a golden wand between his ankles blowing away the Blues, my Blues. Once you get patience echoed in my ears, resounding like a chant. It had been exactly one month of silence when I met my trumpet man.
Before I knew it, Melissa was back with cupcakes. “It’s a novelty buying cupcakes out of an airstream van,” she said before sitting down beside me. The white box in her hands contained three confections, two with chocolate icing. With a vanilla iced cupcake our trumpeteer told us the history of the airstream cupcake van. “It used to be ‘Hey Cupcake!’ was the only shack on that whole lot up until last year. Then all these friggin’ roach coaches came in and now it looks like a friggin’ trailer park.”
My stomach, newly awakened with hunger and sugar, growled. It was time to head toward the hotel and find some pizza, yet the magic of his story, his life, had entranced me. My own was a hundred times more complicated and busy, yet he was more content than I ever hoped to be.
“Bye, Kevin. Take care of yourself.”
“Oh for sure. You too.”
For the rest of the night I could talk of nothing but Kevin the trumpet man. He taught me something I probably would’ve learned from the next street musician I bothered, except then it wouldn’t have been from him. Although they are mere mortals, street musicians are America’s snake charmers. And we are the slinking reptiles lured from our private baskets out into the sun.