August 16th, 2013
Pavel told me to meet him at the market to play from 1-5pm. The market was a collection of outdoor stalls that sold food, crafts, and tourist souvenirs and it was located near the National Opera building near the Republicky subway station. Playing at the market meant that you actually got paid by the vendors association as well as all the money you could make from tips and free food that was often offered by friendly street vendors. It was like VIP street music, but it wasnt without its problems.
When I arrived a little late at 1:15, Pavel and Hanka were all set up but not playing. What’s going on I asked. And before they could answer, I heard the swell of a blaring trumpet. I knew that sound. It was the Rumanian trio that played Baltic music. One very good and loud trumpet player and 2 tubas who played a kind of syncopated um-pa beat. They were set up not 15 meters from our spot. Pavel shrugged and pointed at them. Spots for street music in Prague were hotly contested. Normally, someone who was playing a market had priority, afterall it was a paid gig, but these Rumanian guys didnt always play by the rules. The trumpet player was a brash barrel-chested man of about 55 and his 2 tuba players were leathery skinned thin men of about the same age. I looked over at them, they were blaring away without concern. “They said they would stop in about 30 minutes”, Pavel said sadly. “I dont want to fight with them so I agreed”. That really sucked. In the meantime, we were just hanging around and losing possible tips and playing time. “I’ll take care of it.” I told Pavel. I took out my horn and walked over to the trio. Without asking permission I walked up to them and joined in to their song. I didnt know what would happen. Maybe they would hit me, or yell at me, or ignore me, or something else. Just for fun, I got a tourist to film the entire episode with my camera. I played my first note and waited to see what would happen. To our surprise, the trumpet player when he heard me, turned and smiled. He was happy to have me playing. I played along with the song, because the chords were quite simple. He motioned for me to play. I played along with the 2 tubas. It was like wading into a fast moving stream. The syncopations were intense, the chords were only hinted at and it was up to me to finish the insintuation. I played for 30 seconds and I guess I did well because all three were smiling. Then the trumpet player came in and took a solo. His powerful sound overwhelmed the puny one my sax was able to make. Then he motioned for us to play together. Now was his chance to get revenge. I tried to play along with him, to fit in, but he kept squeezing me out, changing chords, blowing over. It was impossible. I looked over at the tuba players, they were smiling in an evil way. Ok. It was impossible to play with this guy. He wasnt into sharing at all. The song ended and I shook hands with the 3. I went back to Pavel and Hanka, expecting to hear another song start up. There was silence. I looked over and they were packing up their instruments. “What did you do? What did you tell them?” Pavel asked joyously. “I don’t know. I just played and then they stopped.””you are a genius. Beautiful. you are great.” And we started in playing right away before they changed their minds.
Playing on the street is sometimes a little dangerous. Afterall, there are the street people who at times are unbalanced. After about 30 minutes of playing, a street man of about 35 years of age, heavily tatooed, dirty clothes, multiple body piercimgs, and walking with jerky movements walked up in front of the band. Clearly he was unbalanced. There was something menacing about him. You felt that he might take a swing at you at any moment. He might pull out a knife. he looked dangerous. As we were playing he suddenly went down and started doing pushups right in front of us. He was strong. You could see him rippling muscles flowing out of his cutoff sleeves. After doing about15 pushups he started doing one handed pushups. His message was clear. I am strong and dangerous and I am crazy. We played on but no one payed us much attention. All eyes were on the crazy guy, and that was what he wanted. I looked over at Pavel, no slouch himself at about 6’4” maybe 220 solid pounds. He was just smiling and laughing like always. We finished the song off as the pushup guys sat down directly in front of us and stayed there glaring at us and the audience. Not exactly great for business.
We played a few more songs like that. The atmosphere was tense, and we finished off the set and took a break. We were hoping the pushup guy would get bored and maybe walk away, but no such luck. He hung around lurching between us and other people milling around. I felt uncomfortable whenever he walked behind me. A few other people, friends of the band, joined us. There was Peter, a real virrtuoso if ever there was one. He played water glasses. Its true and amazing. He had about 40 glasses full of water that were tuned to a chromatic scale. By rubbing and tapping them, he was able to make amazing sounds. It sounded like a violin but perhaps even more beautiful, more etheral. He played with 4 fingers, in four part harmony. Peter was a sweetheart too. The nicest guy. About that time, a female friend of mine, Alice, walked up. I had told her we would be there. Alice was a 26 year old Italian woman, nice looking, friendly. As she got close, I raised my hand to wave to her. I introduced her to the band and to Peter. Suddenly, the pushup guy appeared and went straight for Alice. He said hello, and then grabbed her hand and started kissing it. Peter, who didnt even know Alice, got very upset and said some nasty words to the street guy in Czech. The pushup guy exploded. He started yelling and dancing around. Peter, not one to back down from a fight, started yelling back. Soon, tensions were very high and escalating. it looked like there would be a fight. I looked at Pavel. He shrugged. This was life onthe streets, it seemed to say. I had to do something. I ran over to the two guys who were squaring off. Without thinking I dropped on the ground between them and started doing pushups. Everyone was confused. What was I doing? They both backed up a little to watch me. The pushup guy looked bewildered. That was HIS thing. HE WAS THE PUSHUP GUY NOT ME. It seemed to be a direct challenge to his identity. He looked from Peter to me and somehow through his drug infused mentally messed up brain, he decided I was the bigger challenge. He dropped down to the ground and started doing pushups too. It was a contest to the death. I had already down about 8 but I kept going. he was for sure stronger and faster than me, but I kept going at a steady pace. I did perhaps 15 more. Perhaps he did 25. the pain was getting intense in my chest and shoulders but I kept going. Now everytime I pushed up, I yelled in pain like a professional tennis player. 25, 26. I couldnt hold out much longer. Then suddenly, pushup guy stopped. He stood up. I did 2 more pushups and then up and shouted, “ I won, I won. “ I started jumping all over the plaza arms in the air, like a world champion. The pushup guy looked at me, his expression broken. He looked so lost and sad. He turned away, head down and slunk away. Peter ran over and gave me a big hug. Pavel and hanka were laughing so hardw Pavel slapped me on the back so hard it almost knocked me down. “you did it ….again. You saved us …again. You are our hero Frank.” When dealing with the crazies, sometimes the best way to beat them, is to think like them. It was a great day for music, and thinking out of the box.