22 April 2008

One-man band

When my ear catches a few notes of his Old World, rumpty-tumpty music, I always take a moment to follow it and find this small fellow, Venice’s one-man band. Usually he makes his way around the Rialto area on the weekends, drawing plenty of attention from the crowds but, it seems to me, not so much in the way of payment for his talent.

I could be wrong about that – maybe he nets a lot more than I imagine! Or maybe he has a lucrative workweek job, and he just does this for his own amusement or a little pocket change. Who can say?

The first time I saw him I had that awful little twinge one feels when seeing someone do something humbling for handouts. He has a stoic, expressionless way of slowly shuffling down the street, pitched slightly forward to bear the weight of his apparatus, staring straight ahead and beating out his cartoonish but still somehow melancholy songs. That could be his way of distancing himself from the pointers and gigglers, or perhaps it’s just a matter of concentrating on all the different things he is doing at one time. He acknowledges every donation he receives (somehow nodding without adding any unwanted sleighbell sounds to the song he plays), but he never smiles, he never fawns, he never says a word to anyone. I am always struck by the great personal dignity this comical entertainer manages to maintain.

Of course, being who I am, my mind wanders and wonders about this man’s life…

How, exactly, does one get into this line of work? Did he inherit the enterprise? Learn it from his father or an uncle? Or did he himself get the idea to construct the mechanism that allows him to beat his drum or bang his cymbals with a tug of his foot and still shuffle along while also playing his toy-like concertina and precisely twitching to shake the sleighbells on his goofy funnel hat in time to his sad-funny music? Are the euros dropped into his can an important part of his family’s weekly income? Will he complain to his wife tonight about his workday? Does he dream of retiring from this musical grind?

This past Sunday evening I noticed him getting off the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma with all his equipment (jingle-belled funnel hat included) bundled up securely, heading toward the queue for the bus to Mestre. While he waited, he lit a cigarette and checked his watch, just like any other working man on his way home to supper.