The Harmonica Man of Elizabeth Street

It is lunchtime in Elizabeth Street and the foot traffic is in a
hurry. I am in a hurry, hurrying to my coffee, weaving in and out of
traffic before hurrying back to work. One  pair of legs is stationary
in all this traffic and fret. The legs stand against a shop window,
long legs in shabby grey trousers. My head swivels and my gaze works
upwards past a jacket of crumpled grey to a stubble of stippled beard
on a thin and craggy face.
A hand is raised to the face. It holds a harmonica which is applied to
a toothless mouth. Flabby cheeks inflate and empty, bellows for
music’s fire.
On the footpath at the musician’s feet is an upturned grey flannel
cap. He is a street performer, and as an habitual supporter of the
arts, I reach for a coin, but the tides and eddies of Elizabeth Street
carry me well past the busker before I can contribute.
Next time, I promise myself.
Next time I am in Elizabeth Street, I sight the man in plenty of time
to steer over towards him.  Up close now, I see the same harmonica,
the same hat, the same performance. The hat is empty. So, it seems, is
the harmonica, which is mute despite the musician’s respirations
through it. It appears that his lungs are so wasted away by time and
tobacco that the tides of air pass silently across his instrument. The
man is breathing: that is the totality of his act.
Upon him now, I reach into my pocket for coin, but the fob is empty,
and I have passed.
Next time, I promise myself.
But the next time I am in Elizabeth Street at the busking hour, the
harmonica man is not there. Is he breathing his art elsewhere? Is he
breathing at all?
Weeks pass. The chill of early winter gives way to the deep cold of
the solstice. A wind blows from the Antarctic, driving the coffee
crowd before it in its overcoats and its scarves, into safe cubbies of
caffeine and warmth.
And there, there in the thin grey pants and coat is the mouth
organist, breathing still, breathing inaudibly into his organ of mime.
The winds of winter and the moving feet make the only music in
Elizabeth Street.
On what does he subsist, this insubstantial being? Aged, alone in the
multitude, unfed, barely clad, unheard – where does he go at fall of
night?

One thought on “The Harmonica Man of Elizabeth Street

  1. Howard, that’s beautiful. I know how easy it is to pass by a busker. Your picture of this man brought to mind the tramp character in the TV version of Dennis Potter’s ‘Pennies from Heaven’. Sadly evocative and kind of ethereal.
    Thanks!
    Sally Bird

    Like

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