Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ralph Attacks!

Last Wednesday, I spent the afternoon busking in Central Park with the Blue Vipers. As our normal spot at 69th and 5th Ave. was taken, we had to choose between playing on the Promenade, where there was Ralph, and Bethesda Fountain, where there was a very big machine making a very loud noise. Now, the very big machine is self-explanatory, but Ralph requires elucidation. Ralph is an older (ie. 50ish) saxophone player who camps out, without fail, at the southern end of the Promenade just about every day, regardless of season, temperature, or weather. He's not very good. He plays the same, endless, tiresome licks over the same ten tunes, never with much regard for time, always noodlicious. Not exactly finger-snappin' music. Tourists love him. I guess a photo with a real-live, black saxophonist in Central Park adds a certain level of authenticity to their experience. But to many, us included, he's a nuisance. Anyway, Billy voted to deal with the machinery, because something about Ralph wasn't sitting right, but Chris and I could only think of the impending insanity brought about after half an hour of dealing with that god-awful noise, and so we settled at our spot on the Promenade.

The Promenade is pretty spacious. There's plenty of room for two groups if they set up at opposite ends. Sonic interference isn't much an issue, and independent crowds can form around each (group of) performer(s). We're always mindful to keep as much space between Ralph and us, and as of then, we'd never had a problem. We started playing, everything was going as usual, maybe a little slow, but normal for a Wednesday. After each tune, Billy would look over at Ralph, then say something like, "Man, that guy's really creeping me out today." At first, Ralph was playing, looking over occasionally like he usually does, then he stopped and sat down on the bench, talking to a Japanese girl. I thought nothing of it, neither did Chris. Hell, I'd take a long break to talk to a cute Japanese girl, why shouldn't he? Billy, though, continued his over-the-shoulder glances, still not at ease.

We had finished a tune, probably the sixth or seventh, then Ralph was upon us, saxophone over his shoulder, booze on his breath. He got right up in Billy's face (I could have lit his breath), and began cursing him out. "You one disrespectful motherfucker. Outa everyone I ever known, you the most disrespectful motherfucker all'um. You're not a fuckin' musician. You no musician." Billy tried to talk to him, reminding him that when he first came to the park, he'd asked Ralph to play with him, had made efforts to establish a rapport. He told Ralph that we try to stay off the Promenade, but certain conditions that day cut off other options. It was obvious at this point that Ralph was beyond reason, and diplomacy was not an option. "You a disrespectful motherfucker. I gonna knock your fuckin' head off if you say another word. Say somethin'. Say somethin' so I can knock you the fuck out." And so on.

Tactically, we were at a hell of a disadvantage. Billy and I were sitting, instruments in lap, and Chris was standing with his bass. If someone started swinging, it was going to be messy. So naturally, none of us said a word, and Ralph eventually walked away with his little Japanese girlfriend. An European tourist, who obviously hadn't put two and two together, had been patiently waiting during Ralph's tirade, and now tried to get us to pose for a picture. Though, as Billy put down his guitar and took off his coat, anger spilling out from the seams, I knew it wasn't going to end here. (After everything was over, Billy mentioned, almost nostalgically, "Man, makes me think of New Orleans, shit like this happen 'bout every day.") He stood up, no regard for the photographer, and yelled after Ralph, "You threatening me? I hope you ain't threatening me!" Seconds later, Ralph was charging Billy like a drunken buffalo, chasing Billy around the promenade, more winded with each lunge. Someone called the cops, and by now, at least a couple people were filming.

Chris is one of the nicest guys I know. I can't imagine anyone having a problem with him. But I guess when he snaps, he snaps. He's a short, stocky Italian guy who goes to the boxing gym four times a week, and I would never want to be the object of his snapping. Evidently, the injustice of the situation had blown past some neural threshold, and he screamed at Ralph, "You're crazy!" Of course, he was right. In three seconds, there was the projectile called Ralph, pushing Chris to the ground, bass falling over, guitar crashing off the bench. Chris shot back up like a rubber band and popped Ralph right in the eye. They tangled for a bit, glasses flying, and even Ralph's Japanese friend got a solid shove when she tried to break them apart.

(It's worth mentioning at this point, for the U of M alums, that some of Ralph's business cards spilled all over the pavement during the struggle, and I found out that his last name is Williams. Lovely.)

Around this time, a parks service car and two police cars showed up. Ralph insisted that nothing of what had just happened actually did happen (along with his lady friend, which leads me to believe that maybe love is, literally, blinding). Thanks to our legion of techno-savvy, readily-documenting witnesses, his claim was quickly debunked, leaving us with the question of whether or not to press charges. Since, thankfully, no one was hurt and nothing was damaged, we decided to let it slide, but made it very clear that if he so much as broke wind when one of us walked by, he was going to jail. After he walked off, the parks people readily voiced their irritation with Ralph, as this wasn't the first time they had showed up to find him involved in such a situation. Plus, they can't stand his playing. One guy in particular kept on ranting: "It's all goddamn licks, over and over, day in day out. Play a MELODY sometime, for Christ's sake!" They'd love a reason to kick him out, but then there's that pesky 1st Amendment, which seems to protect people like Ralph and Nazi protesters.

And so concludes another episode in the Adventures of Park Musicians. Although it makes for a good story, it frustrated me to no end. I'm a skinny short guy, not much of a fighter, but fortunately, I can usually talk people down long before it comes to fists. But what do you do when someone is impervious to diplomacy, when they set the rules of the game such that anything you say is a license for them to punch you in the face? It makes me shudder, but apparently, there exist situations where you can get backed into a corner, and your only choice is to swing back or get pummeled. And I wouldn't opt for the latter. Anyone know a good place to study Aikido in the City?

Soon, I might have pictures. And video...


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