Office workers lined the concrete steps in Occidental Park, where they sipped San Pellegrino and ate lunches from cardboard take-out boxes. Occasionally, they glanced at a guitarist, who sang, “It’s too late, baby now, it’s too late” in a low tenor voice.
Jim Petrich, dressed in a collared shirt and slacks, sat with a brown bag lunch. He’s an architect, and he likes to get out of the office, especially when musicians play in Occidental Park.
He gets the impression other park visitors like musicians too, he said.
“People seem to be more respectful and less likely to be loud and disruptive [when musicians are there],” he said.
Jennifer Luu, an intern at a menu planning website, agreed. “It definitely feels a lot safer right now,” she said.
But the music on that recent Thursday wasn’t coming from just any guitarist. A sandwich board beside his chair identified him as Kenn Lynn, the busker of the day.
Lynn and 24 other musicians were hired by Seattle Parks and Recreation this spring to perform in downtown parks. Each year since 2007, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Busker Program has paid buskers, musicians who play on the street for tips. For $50, they play from noon to 2 p.m. or 4 to 6 p.m. in some of the city’s most crime-ridden parks: Occidental, Pioneer Square, Hing Hay, Freeway and Westlake.
Lynn, one of the program’s first buskers, said the parks feel calmer than when he started. “It’s hard to get in a fight when I’m over here playing
‘Ob-la-di’ or something,” he said.
The program was created to draw people into the parks, said Adrienne Cavers-Hall, who runs the it.
Since the program’s inception, a panel of parks department staff and musicians have held auditions every spring.
“Klezmer music is always popular,” Cavers-Hall said. The group selected this year includes an electronic violinist, an accordion player and a sea-shanty choir, which performs songs traditionally sung by sailors while they worked.
“One thing we don’t try to put in the park is rock guitarists,” Cavers-Hall said. They’re too noisy.
Cavers-Hall is applying for a $50,000 grant to expand the program. She hopes to hire more performers, including a marimba band and a troupe from Cirque du Soleil.
‘Make asses of ourselves’
A shirtless skateboarder rolled through pigeons on the square at Westlake Park. A line of rush hour buses screeched along Fourth Avenue. As headphone-clad commuters crowded the sidewalk, someone leaned against a rock ledge calling, “Need weed, bro?”
Ben Smith sat in the shade of a parks department tent, blew through a lusterless metal clarinet and tapped his foot on a tambourine. His friend Max sat beside him and pounded a snare drum. They played “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash.
Smith, 56, wore a floppy sun hat and wrap-around sunglasses and sported a bushy gray beard. A six-year veteran of the busking program, he said his goal isn’t just to play music in the park.
“We’re here to make asses of ourselves so people feel more free,” he said.
He plays with friends each week. In mid-July, he was joined by Max, who played snare drum with one hand and cycled through a bag of instruments with the other: a clown whistle, tambourine, spoons.
When Smith was a kid, his father worked for the Navy. The family moved all over the country, from Connecticut to Seattle, stopping along the way in Rhode Island, Hawaii, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.
Smith started playing clarinet when he was 11, but he stopped soon after because each new school he attended didn’t have a band. When he was 17, his father retired from the Navy, moved his family to Seattle and took a job at Boeing.
Smith returned to music, but ditched the clarinet. “I was a rebellious young teen, and I wanted to take up the electric guitar to make more noise,” he said.
But by age 30, he was sick of hauling around amps and competing with hordes of other buskers who play guitar.
Now, Smith plays baritone saxophone with the D20 Brass Band, which performs funk versions of videogame theme songs, and he plays clarinet regularly in the parks.
He said playing in each of the program’s five parks is different: Westlake Park is often crossed by shoppers and tourists. Freeway Park is often empty. Occidental Park has a lot of homeless people.
“Nobody really gives us a hard time,” Smith said.
He can only recall one incident: While Smith was playing in Occidental, a woman bent over his money cup and cautiously dropped in a handful of change. But she grasped two dollar bills as she slowly lifted her hand out of the cup.
“She was watching us the whole time, like, ‘Am I going to get away with this?’” Smith said. “We just sat there. We felt bad.”
Even when nobody stops to listen, Smith’s cup is always well-stocked. He usually puts in $15 to pressure anyone who looks down.
But Smith isn’t made of money, and this day was especially slow. He blamed the heat. The 6 p.m. summer glare reflected off a nearby skyscraper. The smell of marijuana drifted from a shadier corner of the park.
Suddenly, a line of chattering teenagers grabbed Smith’s attention as they stepped into the square. “Let me see if I can work this bunch,” he said, then launched into a vibrato-rich squawk.
Playing music: a lifesaver
Kenn Lynn’s first home in Seattle was the Bread of Life Mission on First Street and South Main. That hadn’t been his plan.
A native New Yorker, Lynn followed his wife, an Air Force officer, through Texas and Florida. They were living in Orlando when the couple divorced.
Soon after, a friend invited Lynn to stay at a camping retreat in Sequim, where he managed the grounds.
Lynn sold his possessions, bought a Greyhound bus ticket and set out on a weeklong trip across the country. But when he called to say he was close, he learned his friend had suddenly died from cancer.
“Here I am, missing my friend,” he recalled. “I’m down on Stewart where the bus gets out, going, ‘Oh shit. Now what am I going to do?’”
The answer, he soon discovered, was to busk.
When Lynn was 7 years old, his parents handed him a toy catalog for Christmas and told him to choose anything. He skipped over the toy tools and circled a child’s music kit: a miniature electric guitar, a five-watt amp, a music stand and a microphone.
“I drove my parents crazy with the first lick from ‘Secret Agent Man,’” Lynn said.
He studied electrical engineering at suny-Binghamton, but never worked as an electrical engineer. Instead, he used his electrical skills to build his own guitar amplifiers after college, he said.
For a while, he worked as a soundman in theaters and recording studios.
When he landed in Seattle eight years ago, Lynn didn’t have any nearby friends. He had $4,000 in his money belt, but nowhere to stay. So he took a bed at Bread of Life and began playing his guitar in Steinbrueck Park. There, another busker told him about an open room in her apartment building. Lynn, 58, still lives there today.
“Playing music saved my life,” he said.
Now he runs a small recording studio.
“If I could do it my way, I’d be recording Journey and the Beatles,” he said. But he doesn’t mind recording young rappers — the bulk of his clients — if they don’t use too much profanity. “I don’t care if a guy is playing one chord on the guitar,” he said. “If he’s got something to say, I’ll record him.”
Lynn makes a decent living from his recording studio. “It pays some of the bills,” he said. But he busks for about eight hours each week for fun.
He likes watching people’s reactions, he said. “I love when the old folks get romantic with each other,” he said. Songs like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “My Girl” usually do the trick.
Young people are harder to reach. “I’ve had kids walk up to me and say, ‘You’re old. I don’t want to hear your music,’” he said. “I never get angry about that. I remember when I was 17. I didn’t want to hear my grandparents’ music.”
But a class of 30 preschoolers recently stopped to listen. “You know the way three-year-olds dance?” he said. “It was like a collection of little springs.”
Just call him ‘Bob’
The name “Stanislaw Chalicki” is too hard for most people to say. So Chalicki started calling himself Stanislove (pronounced “Stan-is-love”) to help people out. It hasn’t worked.
“My name gets murdered so much, just call me ‘Bob,’” Chalicki said.
Chalicki, 68, doesn’t play music for a living, which is good, he said. He doesn’t have to worry about other people’s tastes. He can play the music he likes: jug band, a mix of blues and folk traditionally played on homemade instruments.
When Chalicki was a teenager in New Haven, Conn., bands with washboards and washtub basses were hot. Girls loved them, he insisted. “They weren’t wimpy. It was ballsy music.”
He bought a guitar at age 16 and has kept one close ever since. During the Vietnam War, he played Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie covers on an aircraft carrier, where he operated a nuclear power generator.
He brought his guitar to Berkeley, Calif., after the war, back to Connecticut for college and then to Seattle. He formed a band in the 1970s and named it the Ten Years Late Jug Band because the heyday of jug bands was long past.
Since then he’s played guitar in bands called Teeth, Hair and Eyeballs, the Emerald City Jug Band and The Rootsters.
Although Chalicki studied industrial design in college, he prefers jobs that have flexible schedules and require no emotional commitment: selling vacuums door-to-door, cataloguing for the Yale University Library and dispatching work orders in a dormitory. Today, he’s a contractor for Microsoft, translating software into German.
He tried to make a living from music, and he didn’t like it. In the 1970s he played regular gigs at a bar. By 1985, Chalicki was sick of pleasing crowds by playing only Grateful Dead songs — so he quit. “For the last 29 years, I have not played one song that I didn’t want to play,” he said.
But he takes busking seriously. He’s been part of the parks department’s program since its inception, and he knows the best spots to make money. “Pioneer Square sucks,” he said. Too many tourists on the Underground Tour. “They look at me like I’m from Mars.”
Chalicki said kids with parents mean money. “You do something lively and you cross your eyes and the kids love that.” Then no parent can resist throwing a few dollars into Chalicki’s guitar case.
Street people are usually bad business, he said. But even they sometimes drop in a bag of nickels.
Chalicki said he always dresses well when he’s busking, “like I’m going to a suburban garden party,” he said. He worries he’ll be perceived as a hustler if he doesn’t look good.
He wears long sleeves that cover his tattoos from the Navy: a shark on one arm and a blotched anchor on the other.
One winter night, Chalicki impressed operagoers by wearing a tuxedo over long underwear and two layers of socks.
“It’s 20 degrees, and you see a street musician wearing a tux,” he said. “That’s worth a buck.”
On most days, he makes a little more than a buck — about $15, he said. But the lousy pay doesn’t faze him. “Ten thousand years from now, there will still be people sitting and playing acoustic instruments,” he said. “They will still want to enjoy the gritty sides of life.”