29 September 2009

Portrait of an SF Street Musician

Rich Cianfrone is a 52-year-old New Jersey native who paints houses to get by. But on the weekends – and when business is slow – he performs on the sidewalks of the famous Haight Ashbury neighborhood to keep the San Francisco Sound alive.

I met Rich outside of the Richmond District home where he rents a room. He led me up a few flights of creaky stairs to his bedroom, the small space he shares with his pet cockatiel. “My bird will be excited to meet you,” the 52-year-old New Jersey native said in his thick accent. “We don’t get too many ladies coming around here.”

He opened the door to his bedroom, the small space he and his cockatiel, a male named Claire, call home. The scents of marijuana smoke and the small animal wafts from his room into the musty hallway.

It is a sparsely decorated bedroom. The walls are white, with a few posters of bands and concerts serving as the only decorations. A twin bed covered with a brown fleece blanket hugs one wall. On the opposite wall sits a large stereo with two giant speakers. Above it are a few shelves littered with CDs of his favorite bands and a framed picture of the late Jerry Garcia. An old television squats in the corner by the window. The last wall is occupied by a white dresser, which contains all of his clothing and possessions.

Atop the dresser, his main companion Claire was climbing around outside his cage, jumping from the edges of cups and bowls. Rich found Claire in his backyard over three years ago and regards him as a son now. The bird’s sunshine yellow face and rosy pink cheeks were one of the only elements brightening up the room. Rich has three grown children, but he is currently estranged from them. No photos or remnants even hint at their existence. His marriage to their mother ended seven years ago, at which point he moved out west.

Rich is a broad shouldered man, thick with muscle from his labor-intensive day job. That day he wore a white wife-beater, a pair of light denim jeans and faded gray tennis shoes. His long hair was pulled back in a curly grey ponytail, except on the top where his bald crown shone through. He is missing a few of his front teeth, which occasionally adds an endearing lisp to his speech.

He pulled out a thirty-year-old guitar and began to play along to some CDs. “I’m a real fan of the San Francisco sound,” he said. “You know, Quiksilver, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, The Stones, Moby Grape.” Rich was growing up in New Jersey when the San Francisco music scene was at its peak in the 1960s and 70s. But he said a Grateful Dead concert he saw with friends back home converted him from a heavy metal devotee. Now his heart lies with the artists that infiltrated San Francisco decades ago. He strummed along to the tunes he knows so well, Claire squawking along to the music.

After warming up sufficiently, Rich decided it was time to head out to the streets where he plays. He pulled a white cap emblazoned with the logo for Kelly Moore paint over his head, and lugged his guitar out the door and on two busses to get across town to where the San Francisco Sound originated: the Haight Ashbury neighborhood.

Walking up and down Haight Street, he chose what he considered a perfect spot to perform. There are many considerations that go into choosing that perfect stretch of sidewalk. For one, the spot must not be in front of an open business, or the business owner will usually shoo the busker away. Also, if it is a particularly warm day, it should be in the shade. Lastly, it must be a suitable distance from competing performers. That day, Rich was performing in front of a closed up storefront splattered with graffiti. On the corner, a young woman with long flowing hair played the violin, and midway down the block, some male guitarists were covering Johnny Cash songs.

He opened his guitar case, knelt on the sidewalk, and began tuning as though he were in his own home. He dropped a few dollar bills and change into the open guitar case to prompt others to leave tips. He stood up and began to play. His accent was just slightly detectable in song, and he strummed the guitar gruffly. But what he lacked in talent, he made up for in spirit. His own personal hardships came through in his covers of the famous tunes. And his eagerness to entertain came through in the smile he flashed at each person who passed.

The weekends draw hoards of tourists and locals to this historic neighborhood, and this sunny Saturday drew even more than usual. The crowd was mostly young and mostly fashionably dressed. Most seemed to gaze right past Rich as he began playing the old songs that once defined this neighborhood. Now trendy boutiques and souvenir shops selling reminders from the past give this neighborhood its identity.

Rich played for about an hour, making only two dollars in that time. He grew hungry and decided to get a slice of cheese pizza and a small Coke. On the walk to the pizza parlor, he stopped to give a fellow street musician advice on how to string his guitar. The two discovered they were both from the East Coast and chatted joyfully. After lunch, Rich stepped out on a side street to take a few puffs from a small joint, which he’d been storing in his zippered coat pocket. He has a regular cigarette lit simultaneously to thwart suspicion of passersby.

As the afternoon dragged on, “Why do you perform?” became the glaringly obvious question. It clearly wasn’t for the money, which wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of lunch. It didn’t even seem to be for the attention; most people seemed to glaze their eyes right past him.

Rich said, “You know, it’s like they say, why have music if no one hears it?” He continued, “For me, it’s not about the money. It’s worth more to me if someone says ‘thanks for keeping it alive’ than if they hand me a dollar. Besides, you can’t make a living doing this.”

For Rich, times have become hard. House painting jobs are harder to come by these days, he said. He blames the influx of inexpensive migrant laborers for this difficulty. Perhaps this hobby brings fulfillment to a man who is dissatisfied with work. Perhaps it fills a void that has been empty since he lost touch with his ex-wife and three children. Perhaps it brings a lost sense of community. Perhaps it makes a man whose best friend is a bird feel appreciated. Or perhaps it is, as he says, simply about keeping the San Francisco sound alive.

Rich settled back into his spot after his break. His guitar is worn out, weathered from many-a-day spent out in the elements. He flung the purple strap over his shoulder, which is so old it requires a shoelace to keep it attached to the guitar. He started to play a different kind of tune, the old Motown hit “My Girl.”

An older man walked by. His eye sparkled and he whistled along to the familiar tune. Smiling, he dropped a dollar into Rich’s open guitar case and simply said, “Thanks.”


Nancy Tracy said...

Brilliant! I loved your spare descriptive prose and affectionate yet detached relationship to your subject.

Chelsea said...

I agree with Nancy Tracy. Your writing is excellent, observant yet the voice throughout remains sympathetic and understanding of Rich. Thanks for sharing! (or for putting it on Twitter)

Anonymous said...

loved your blog. Grandma

Anonymous said...

You portray your subject in a romantic light yet your article points out several character traits that are less than heroic...1) This is a man who has turned his back on his family, three daughters that don't even know where he is. 2) He doesn't actively pursue work but spends his days on a street corner pan-handling and smoking weed. 3)He has serious dental issues which indicate that he doesn't take care of himself and will most likely be a ward of the state in a few years. So I ask you, what is so endearing about this man? Why not spend your time on real heros? How about those men who go out to work every day to fend for their families? I'm sure many would prefer to go hang out on a street corner but they take responsibility to heart and would never think of leaving their wife and kids behind. I think your sympathy and admiration are greatly misplaced.

Anonymous said...

I have known this man's wife for many years. He is estranged from his wife because he is a sex offender...I won't go into details. He is on assistance, and plays to make money off the books, so he don't have to pay child support. He threatened to kill his wife. You were lucky to get out of there alive, this man is a monster.