Three Euros and Fifty Cents by Lamia Ayman Salah

Three Euros and Fifty Cents

He looked around. Everything around him was everything it ever was. The building facades before him – faces of golden age stacked side by side in an ever-degenerating splendor. The different hues they bore, time-washed into a closely shaded palette of oranges, beiges and peachy in-betweens. Their eyes – the windows – only ever externally embellished with modest flowerpots aligned at sill, provide only glimpses of the disparate life within. A life of wealthy notables dominates the hidden residential scene, but their less fortunate, often forgotten counterparts, neighbors by circumstance who had owned their units for decades in this growingly elite part of the rustic city, occupy their humble dwellings with equal face, but hiding inside the secret daily strains of an economic crisis. But unlike the above windows that show him very little, the glass windowpanes at street level open up their chests, it seems, like an eager showgirl at her first performance. Covered wide and exposing deep into the store, the shop windows are packed with shiny, glistening merchandise that above tenants of the latter mentioned category had grown accustomed to passing like ghosts. He averted his gaze. More immediately, below his feet, he acknowledged the familiar cobblestone texture. Still wet with the morning drizzle, the passersby’s hurried steps splattered across it making different sounds as they trotted along. The boots, the heels, the high-end rubber runners all seemed to be splattering in purposeful direction. Busy as these passersby are with smart phones, smart clothes and smart lives, there was little room for freedom, he felt. He was beginning to feel claustrophobic. In the distance, he saw hints of the famous baroque basilica silhouettes. The lines, amid the mist, he could see, marked a clear distinction from the preceding structures. Yet, in all their sumptuous historic grandeur, every hand-painted dome, man-sculpted arch and sweat-stained building brick served him only a constant reminder that it had always been this way.

He took in a deep, lung-filling breath. Then, as he always does, he closed his eyes to filter out all the noise until the obsessive rustles of plastic shopping bags and the obnoxious ringing of needy cellphones had merged into a fading harmony of the blissfully familiar, finely tuned nothingness. Then finally, when the awaited flow of inner calm had streamed, he lifted his guitar out of its case, situated it into the protective mold of his well-accustomed body frame, and set up his handwritten sign for the day in the foreground of his minimal arrangement. The bold letters pronounced: An Artist is Never Poor.

His fingers intuitively found their way. He began to play. With each stroke, his muscles relaxed further into a deeper neurological tranquility. Even his face, his cheekbones, he could feel, were falling into a lazy, seamless smile. The chords he was strumming were making him happy, giddy almost, as he lost himself in the corners of his mind. A cool breeze drifted by, the chill finding its way through the open pocket between his sweatshirt and trousers on his backside and willfully through his hungry, inviting nostrils. He stroked his strings harder. With only his soul open to the public, he could now see everything, feel everything and touch everything like he always wants to. Where time and place make, hardly, significant factors, it is there where he knows he can roam the timeline of his life and the spaces of his world with the most freedom, with the most clarity. The feeling hadn’t changed. From that first time he held an instrument at age six, to that day on that doorstep on that street, the same energy traveled his body. The same trips took place, incurring the same highs, the same lows. The same gushing speeds and the same extended lingers at the same sensory surfaces and the same floating cores. The music may change, in fact – the music will change, but the effect remains the same. Like all musicians, he knew he could play the same piece over and over and it will sound completely different each time. No two identical chords are alike and no two identical notes are alike. But what musicians won’t tell you is that music, in its timelessness, somehow becomes to the broad, universal senses, ultimately, the same.

Quickly and in alarmed remembrance, he moved his right foot forward so that he stepped on the handle of his guitar case and he could feel it under the soles of his shoe. He wasn’t in the mood to open his eyes and rejoin reality just yet, but he wasn’t prepared to be stung by it again either. Losing one case before was enough.

He sighed, struck a couple of loaded chords and changed key.

The crowd-pleaser, he calls this shift technique. Sometimes when he strums hard on his guitar, regardless of its significance in the performed piece, the sounds of metal coins spilling into the hard case before him immediately follow. Maybe aggressive strumming works better to convince the listener that the player is as passionate as he wants him to be. Maybe the intensity grabs the listener’s attention more, violently strips them from their own reality with the thrash of a whip, and in some masochistic way, disturbs the irritating ordinariness of the quiet, mundane context that persists through their daily processions, giving them the light of a forced contrast, the applied force needed for a deviated pendulum swing. Or maybe, they just imagine it expresses an anger or resentment the player shares, in which case, the spare change is a thank-you for releasing theirs, too. But on that specific instance, only a gush of wind came past. A hesitant admirer he presumed, or just another passerby interested only in taking a picture of the struggling artist he thinks he knows.

The new key was a lower, deeper key and it dragged him down along with it. He was attracted to that heavier mood but knew better. So he only allowed himself to get a taste of it, a few sinful bars to savor the darkness like the last sip of a densely brewed coffee, and then tuned up to the line of melodic qualities stated on his legal monthly permit. Melancholy, he knew, was the area of the next busker down the road. From a business perspective, by playing the same genre, he’d have foolishly lost half of his potential tippers on the spot – those coming from the next busker’s end, and thus having heard her first – and likewise, he’d have made her lose half of her share; the crowd approaching her from his end. He opened his eyes and took a quick glance around, but the momentary transgression had passed unnoticed, so he continued with his eerily joyful tune, hiding the strain behind his cemented smile. From a legal perspective, he knew he could lose a lot more. Recalling a tourist-area regulation he learnt from the music police, he was well aware of the prohibitions on ‘sad music’: ‘Every two ‘sad-themed’ performers [they called them] must be intercepted by two or more ‘happy-themed’ artists.’ “Tourists come to enjoy their time!” the police had exclaimed, “How could this be if every 20 meters they were bombarded with another depressing performance?” At that given moment he’d had to decide whether explaining that sad tunes weren’t damaging to the spirit was worth risking losing his long-fought-for designated pitch. He decided it wasn’t worth losing the old, crumbling stone staircase under the graffiti-covered, vine-clenched door. And so he’d kept silent.

He squirmed a little on his hard, bumpy seat and continued with his chirpy overture. He wondered if he’d played it before, as the surroundings began to seep in once more. The splashing of feet, the chattering of passersby and the ever-persistent pleas of umbrella street vendors had transmitted back into his waking world. His seat, now sufficiently warm beneath him, was his first sign that his segment was coming to a close. The vibrating alarm in his sweater pocket was the second, and he numbed it with his near elbow. He pondered on how to close. Sometimes he wonders, if he just halts the playing without any form of outro, will anyone ever notice? Will disapproving passersby frown and will willful tippers confiscate their tips? Will greedy police fetch an opportunity to scold, and will he let them force controls? In any case, what fans does he have to give or take? What loyalty to gain or lose? His music, a passing in the morning air, diffuses in the vastness of the urban setting. Even within that, it is caught in the wind by trees, pinned down in chewed up gum planted on the pavement, and confined to a regional pedestrian sphere by a far greater surrounding noise of hefty vehicle motors – diffusing faster still. Ignoring this belt, he closed off with a simple outro, one he’s used many times before. He let this last note ring a little, as he watched fly into the open air. One minute past his scheduled time slot, he finally gets up the staircase to leave. With the next artist arriving soon, he quickly gathered his setup, taking his sign back into his guitar case and picked out the day’s earnings from its base. Three Euros and fifty cents made up the loose change sum up, which he was skilled at calculating at first sight. He smiled down at the coins in his hand, looking more at their quantity than their total value. He consciously imagined that the majority was slipped in during his offbeat interlude, and he smiled to himself at the thought. Then, he packed up his instrument and left.


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