Soundtrack Subterranea #5: Guitar in Grand Central
Chris’ life has always ran down the neck of a guitar. He’s one of those souls who feel the heat, the passion, the aficion, from the time they set foot on the earth—the kids who carried around stethoscopes or notebooks, those instilled with a purpose from day one. There is, though, one difference between Chris and those kids with the stethoscopes: His passion put him on the streets.
His is a story of classic star-crossed ambition, of an upbringing concentrating on classical music but a fervor blinded by the taste of rock and roll.
“My dad is a classical music aficionado of the umpteenth degree. He’s the reason why I’m into music so much. Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, around the clock,” Chris says. “We could never understand each other past a certain point because I insisted on rock and roll.”
Though the division between classical and rock and roll wasn’t so much of a problem when Chris became serious about guitar, which he says happened at 14 years old, their deep thematic chasm came into focus when he wanted to major in music in college.
“Dad, I want to major in music.”
“No. I’m not paying for it.”
Because his father figured Chris had no future in it.
“And hey, he was probably right,” Chris says, laughing. His good nature is an astounding feat of human persistence, considering the spot he finds himself in now. Frustration with almost constant delays to the completion of his marketing degree led him to dropping out, and from there appeared a rapid succession of images detailing his downfall: a taste of musical success, and then the parties, the rock and roll, a descent into chaos. An apartment turned into a disaster, a landlord offering a sum of money for Chris to leave. A sum of money he didn’t think he’d ever see.
“I took the money and I left. Which I should not have,” Chris says, “because I’d probably still have a roof over my head. Just a big mistake.”
Since then, Chris’ passion for guitar continues, though since he was taken out of a shelter and into an apartment (which he lost because he couldn’t afford rent), he’s been on the streets. He says his technique lacks polish because for eight years he went without a guitar.
“I would get guitars but I would lose them constantly. I’d put it up against the wall, go to sleep, and it’d be gone. Constantly. I’d get a guitar for two or three weeks at most, usually only a week or so, and then it would be gone and it’d take me two or three months to get another one.”
Chris’ current guitar, a Washburn acoustic, sits next to him, his tool of trade, missing a tuning head. He says that the missing part inhibits his playing most, past the homelessness—without the tuning head for his G, his only choice is to tune every other string to whatever his third string is tuned to.
Tonight, Chris is a bundle on a milk crate in Grand Central—he prefers it during the winter because it’s warm enough and there are bathrooms—he prefers not to smile in pictures because his teeth are in bad shape, and his tattered jacket covers him like a cloak. His mind goes blank and his eyes slack from their usual smiling tension, and though the noise of passing crowds drowns his notes, he pushes on, riffing out a strong blues solo before he has to tune again, doing so almost in time with whatever he was playing.
Shoes worn down to nothing, a milk crate bent into the shape of his seat, a guitar with a missing tuning head. Sheet music for Down by the Riverside, because he says he needs to slow down with the soloing and learn how to play the simple chords again. He survives on Muscle Milk and the kindness of strangers, is humble, appreciates every penny, every ounce of attention from passersby—because he knows what the sound of nothing feels like.
“But I’m just barley cutting the mustard,” he says. “Just barely.”
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