I was working at my 25-cent used books vending table on the corner of Telegraph and Haste. My long-time pal B. N. Duncan was working his vending table right next to mine. We’d been setting up our vending tables on Telegraph for nearly 20 years.
Now it was around 5 PM, Christmas Eve, and the Telegraph Avenue Christmas Street Fair was almost over for that year. The other vendors were starting to pack up their tables as last-minute Christmas shoppers dashed about. The party was almost over, giving a melancholy air to the proceedings. It was a last-minute surge of energy before everyone gave up and went home to face their Christmases. You could tell by the vendors body language whether it had been a good or bad season for them, sales-wise. Some were visibly buoyant, counting their big wads of cash right in front of you. Others, you could tell by their dispirited demeanor that they had bombed. Christmas is the make-it-or-break-it time for most street vendors. Some would be celebrating mightily tonight. While others would be bracing for a dismal year.
Duncan and I had been on both sides of that coin. For 15 years we co-published the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar. And the week before Christmas was always our brutal moment of truth. Finding out whether we had a hit or a bomb. I can tell you, there’s nothing more painful than sitting at a vending table for hours watching customer after customer walk by, take a cursory glance at your product, turn their noses up and quickly move on. Its a kind of death. You sit there trying every sales trick in the book.
Duncan had been in fading health for the last several years. So I had a premonition that the 2008 Fair would be our last Telegraph Christmas Street Fair together. In fact, Duncan would be dead within the next 6 months. So I made a special effort to savor the moment. I called him over to my table to share a beer. Olde English 800, naturally. And we quietly sat and smoked and made small talk as we listened to the Christmas music on my boom box. I can’t remember much of the conversation. Like I said, it was mostly small talk. Duncan was so frail at that point, his speaking voice was labored. He croaked out his sentences in a long, slow drawl.
Mostly I kept thinking of all the years. All the years. Our first Christmas Street Fair back in 1990, for godsake. Young and strong, with great hope for the future. Embarking on this great adventure. Wondering where it was all going to lead. And now it occurred to me, it was almost over for Duncan. It had all gone by so fast. It was one of those moments that many people have when they hit 50 where you realize that life is a lot shorter than you thought it was when you were a young man . . .
“Well, I’m gonna pack up . . . and . .. uh… get my supplies for the . . . uh… night,” said Duncan. That meant his usual nightcap that he bought at Fred’s Market: a half dozen deviled eggs, a package of baloney, a chunk of cheddar cheese, some cottage cheese, two tall cans of Olde English, and a pack of Basic 100s. A typical Duncan dinner. Duncan stood up wearily.
“Merry Christmas, Ace,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Duncan,” I said
I hung out at my vending table by myself for a couple more hours. Pounding the beers and enjoying the Christmas music on my radio. I actually love Christmas music (as long as they only play it two weeks before Christmas). I love how you hear every genre of music. Rock, gospel, country, classical, church music, honky tonk music, the 50s, the 60s, etc. Even punk rock. Every genre has their Christmas music. My favorite Christmas song of all-time is the classical song Pachelbel’s Canon in D. And I lucked out that Christmas Eve. The city had hired a guy to play Christmas music on his classical guitar and he was set up across the street from me in front of Mario’s mexican restaurant. And right on cue he started playing Pachelbel. I actually started crying. Tears running down my face. What can I say. I’m a sentimental slob at the best of times. And at least you have an excuse on Christmas Eve.
About 15 minutes later I went over and threw 5 bucks in his guitar case. “That was beautiful!” I said. “Please play Paco Bell again!”
Later much to my delight, he played it again. I applauded deliriously from my vending table. “PACO BELL!” I cried. (I was a little drunk by this time)
I went over to the classical guitar player again and threw some more money in his case. “THAT WAS GREAT! OH MAN, PLAY PACO BELL ONE MORE TIME! PAH-LEEZE!”
“O-kay,” he said.
But I could tell he said it grudgingly. Later, in the middle of playing another song, he threw in a couple of bars of Pachelbel, before moving on to other songs, hoping that would placate me. I could tell he was getting annoyed by my constant requests, but I continued to yell out: “PLAY PACO BELL! PLAY PACO BELL!!” (When I’m drunk I can turn into the asshole who stands in the frontrow yelling: “PLAY FREE BIRD! PLAY STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN!” all night long.)
Then Anthony showed up. He had his beat up old street guitar on his back. He whipped it out and played and sang a few bars of the Tubes song “White Punks on Dope.” It was like an inside joke between us. We went back about 20 years, me and Anthony. He had once been one of the best street musicians on the Ave. And his track on the Telegraph Avenue Street Music CD was one of the best tracks we had recorded back in 1994 (a smokin’ funk-rock track hot off the streets of Oakland). But we had both been through the mill over the years. Drugs and etc. But here we still were. Ready to party on one more Christmas Eve.
“Hey Anthony, do me a favor,” I said. “Here’s 5 bucks. Go put that in the guitarist’s case and ask him to play Paco Bell. He won’t listen to me any more.”
Anthony dutifully trotted over there and then came back with a smile on his face.
“What’d he say?” I said.
“He said: ‘Please quit requesting Paco Bell.’ And he gave me 20 dollars to leave him alone.”
Anthony gave me his big, toothy Sly Stone smile and trotted off merrily, in search of 20 bucks worth of Christmas cheer. ‘Tis the season of giving.
I realized I was being an asshole (eventually that realization dawns on me) and quit requesting Paco Bell. I sat there quietly at my vending table, drinking my beer and smoking my cigarettes, and listening to Christmas music on my boom box, and thinking many, many thoughts.
Merry Christmas, everybody.