Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Taps for the Jukebox

One of the appeals of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is the street performers. Down there now is “the bushman,” a guy who hides behind the leafy branches cut from a bush and leaps out at passersby, startling them, to the vast amusement of the crowd that has gathered around to watch. This is so funny because it doesn’t seem as if it should ever work. The bushman generally assumes his position in some location where there is no greenery other than his branch, which really doesn’t hide him very well anyway. The crowd gathered around him leaves an opening, a natural stage with a radius of about 15’, and stares at the bush man. And always, at regular intervals, somebody comes along, strolling into the middle of this crowd that is watching a bush, somehow unaware of both the crowd and the man hunkered behind the bush, until they draw even with the bushman and he leaps out at them. This act kills every time.

Unlike the cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf, though, the street performers come and go. After awhile you find yourself talking to old acquaintances and asking, “hey, do you remember the silver couple at Union Square, or the juggle at Pier 39?” The performer mentioned the most was always Grimes Poznikov, the Human Jukebox. We never knew his name then, just his act. When I was in my teens and early twenties he was a fixture down by the waterfront. He worked out of a refrigerator box, with a coin slot cut in the side. You’d drop money in the slot and he’d draw the string to open the top of one side of the box, then play for you whatever song you’d requested. How well he played and what instrument he played depended on how much you paid. If you paid enough you’d get a sterling performance on the trumpet. He seemed to disappear about twenty years ago or so. He didn’t disappear, though. He was still around, just invisible, no longer playing for the tourists, his life overtaken by mental illness and alcohol and the struggles of those who live in the street. His struggles ended last Thursday. He was found lying dead on the sidewalk near the corner of Caesar Chavez Street and Highway 101. He was 59.
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