Saturday, January 27, 2007


Thursday we ran into my favorite Pittsburgh street musician on the 61A. Thomas asked me later did I see her violin case or did I actually recognize her, because he doesn’t think he would have, out of context. I realized that I had recognized her largely because of the recognition I saw on HER face when she saw ME, because otherwise her long hair was tucked into her coat, and I’d never seen her in winter clothes before.

She’s usually wearing, when I see her playing on Murray Avenue, an ankle-length patchwork skirt and a cotton peasant blouse; her very long hair tied into a braid or sometimes pulled off her face in part, the rest loose. The way she looks, and in fact everything about this woman, is a flashback for me, to the post-hippies I observed as a child in the 70s and their lives as I imagined them. Her kindness, her openness to striking up conversation on the street, her dedication to busking, her youthful energy, even her face itself, with its lack of makeup and its wide-eyed curiosity, yes, even its willingness to RECOGNIZE and to meet that recognition with vitality and enthusiasm.

In the 70s, our young family was still moving around the country, as we looked for a place that was amenable to my father setting up a practice, and one that would please my mother and have good public schools; the usual. I often describe these years as a struggle between my father’s fantasy of being a West Coast-Free Spirit and my mother’s strong desire that her children should know their (East Coast) grandparents, and I’m making it up, but I don’t think I’m way off, either.

The homes that were my earliest memories were set in the liberal college towns of central Massachusetts and then central Orgeon--Chickopee and Corvallis. There, hippies existed everywhere in the fringes of my world--the wood-shelved health food stores, the local mountains we hiked, the farmer’s markets, the restaurants we went to for soup or whole-wheat pizza, the dilapidated bookshops that always had a dog or a cat haunting the back of the store, even the church choir with its acoustic-guitar interpretations of the hymns.

The busker had just been to the Carnegie Art Museum, she said. She’d spent the day looking at the Impressionists and the Old Masters, on a free pass because she’d been invited to play an event. She told me my coat and scarf reminded her of a certain Bonnard with greens and lavenders, and a brown dog. I complemented her on her scarf, whose pattern looked like a series of God’s Eyes (another memory from the 70s, grade-school art classes and camp activities) and the three of us recalled the story of Isadora Duncan’s death. The busker said Yes, she often thinks about the scarf snapping the dancer’s neck, whenever she catches her hair in a car door or against some other snag. I asked her had her hair ever caught fire, and she said no, but a shirt did, once. She told us of a long-ago boyfriend, and how she found it a very romantic and exciting idea to cook dinner for him and his friend. She was at the gas stove in his apartment, cooking Mexican in a blousy Mexican shirt when the shirt caught fire, the flames travelling quickly up near her face. She was able to put out the fire, but another flame was extinguished when her boyfriend came in and asked what was taking dinner so long. “That was it for me.” She walked out right then and there.

What was a Hippie in my imagination as a child? They wore loose clothes, and flowing hair, they didn’t spend their time in malls or their money on beauty and hygeine products. They made whatever they could, they learned crafts and skills to make items for practical home use (like soap or saurkraut) or to make a living (like jewelry or musical instruments), they grew their own vegetables, they often built their own houses, even our family raised pigs for a time, and ate them for the rest of that Massachusetts winter. No, Hippies in my observation were not always vegetarian but were always anti-consumer. Nor in my mind were they fascists or evangelists about their beliefs, they just lived like this. They were easy going, they smiled easily, they liked whole foods, they liked music, which was mostly played by themselves or their wives or their friends, with whom they would gather and cook and sing. I had heard my parents’ mentions of Vietnam protests, but I didn’t pay attention to the political anger that the Hippie might have, or anything else beneath those smiles. For that matter, my parents looked blissful and easy in their snapshots from Vietnam protests.

I asked my busker did she paint, and she said Yes, that she had recently taken it up again. She’d put up fliers hocking her skills as a portrait artist, hoping it would make some money and get her back into the habit. She’d gotten some requests from families, she said, and what she learned was that children were very difficult to paint. You should definitely paint them first, she told us. Still, she prefers painting from life to painting from a photograph. We asked her was her street music out for the season, and she said Yes, she won’t play again until it’s mild. Even if she was up to it, the violin was not, she told us. “It can’t take extreme heat or cold.” The violin she was carrying was a borrowed one, because hers had cracked with the sudden drop in temperature. She was planning on bartering with a guy who runs a shop in the Strip District to get it repaired.

I think I imagine that Easy-Going Hippies is what my parents were whenever they weren’t acting shackled by their Catholic dogma, or regressing to the prejudices and fears of their own parents. But their hippie selves slowly seemed to become relegated to the past so that I still associate THOSE parents with those places--Massachusetts and Oregon. For our final move as a family was to Virginia, to a suburban housing development far from any college campus or liberal urban environs, to a neighborhood of folks who seemed pretty content to turn into their parents, with more money. The 70s became the 80s and malls were the thing, money was the thing, sports cars and power ties were the thing. The anti-Reagan counter-culture I grew up with was vocal, visible, and real, even in my small suburban town, but it always seemed so much more angry and desperate than those serene hippies of my youth. This didn’t keep me from being involved with it, but it did seem to relegate those hippies, once again, to a specific place and time.

At Forbes and Murray, we parted ways. Thomas and I excused ourselves down the aisle and flashed our bus passes at the driver as we descended to the sidewalk; and the busker kept riding East.


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