Street Hassle | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Street Hassle 

No one is spared in the city's crackdown on buskers.

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By Neal Pollack

Around two o'clock in the afternoon on Friday, March 7, Gary Jones headed down to the State and Lake subway stop to go to work. He strapped on his guitar, strung a harmonica around his neck, tied a tambourine to his foot, and began to sing. Taylor, his black Labrador seeing-eye dog, lay peacefully at his feet.

When a CTA platform supervisor approached, Jones pulled a couple of bills from his guitar case and asked the supervisor if he could help him out by identifying the denominations. Jones, who has been legally blind since he was injured at age 14, had no other way of knowing how much money he'd made.

Jones says the supervisor accused him of bribery and asked him to leave. Jones pleaded with the supervisor to let him stay. As he later wrote in an account of that day, "I was licensed, out of the way and not bothering anyone." He hadn't even brought an amplifier, though he often needed one to compete with the noise in the subway.

The supervisor told Jones that the CTA only allows licensed subway musicians to play at four designated locations in the system, at the far edges of the Washington and Jackson platforms at State and at Dearborn. These are known to subway musicians as "starvation zones," because they are virtually closed off to foot traffic. Jones was aware of the regulations, but like most other subway musicians he tended to avoid them.

According to Jones, the supervisor ordered him to move to one of the designated spots. Jones refused, as another musician was already playing there.

"If I let you play here," Jones says the supervisor told him, "then I have to allow everyone." He likened Jones's playing on the platform to playing in front of the supervisor's house. When Jones still refused to move, the supervisor left, threatening to call the police.

A passenger waiting for a train requested that Jones play "Hotel California." Halfway through the song, the supervisor returned with four police officers. Jones stopped playing but refused to put down his guitar. Jones says the officers grew angry, threatened to take away his instruments, and told Jones that if he didn't stop they'd take Taylor to the city dog pound. When Jones began playing a Tom Petty song called "I Won't Back Down," he says, the officers jumped him. One snatched his guitar, and another grabbed his arms and handcuffed him. Jones says he heard someone cry out "The dog pound!" He held on tight to Taylor's leash.

"He just wants to be a martyr," he says he heard one of the officers say. "He thinks he's a white Rosa Parks."

Jones hadn't considered that before. He told the officers he was engaged in civil disobedience, just like Parks had been in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. This made the police even angrier, Jones said.

They dragged him up the escalator, with Taylor in tow. They threw Jones and the dog into a paddy wagon and drove them to the First District police station.

Jones says he sat handcuffed to a chair at the station while the officers took turns berating him. He says one called him "blind in the mind." They joked about strip-searching him and putting him in the dog pound instead of his black Lab. Jones responded by quoting Henry David Thoreau.

After he asked for a lawyer, Jones claims an officer told him, "There ain't no lawyers here, boy."

Jones stayed in lockup for about two hours. When he was taken to sign an I-bond for his release, he says, one of the receiving officers grumbled about the CTA wasting the police's time by continually sending them street musicians on bogus charges.

The police had accidentally scheduled Jones's court date on Good Friday, so he didn't have to go. But he didn't forget about his arrest. He'd been harassed before, and he knew too many other musicians who had been arrested in the subway for this to be an isolated incident. Jones guessed that he was going to have problems with the CTA again. He was right.

In November 1996, David Mosena, who was then president of the CTA, launched a crackdown on peddlers and panhandlers on CTA platforms and trains. The agency had been receiving an increasing number of complaints from riders. "We've asked our security personnel, police, and contract security people to put more resources into the panhandling problem," Mosena said.

Between November 11 and 17 of that year, 55 people were arrested on misdemeanor charges on CTA property. Only 12 people had been arrested during the entire month of October. As arrests increased, panhandlers began disappearing from the train lines.

Subway musicians, meanwhile, were also feeling the effects of the new policy. They all knew the starvation zone restrictions were just an excuse to drive them away, and they willfully ignored the policy.

In July Jones was arrested again, this time at the Clark and Lake stop. On September 17 he was arrested a third time. All three situations were remarkably similar, and all ended with police officers threatening to impound his dog. "They knew what my sore spot was," Jones says. "It was kind of like Orwell's 1984, when they took you to Room 101. They knew what your worst fear was, and they'd lord that over you."

The ticket for Jones's most recent arrest says he was charged with "disorderly conduct." It reads that he "knowingly and intentionally blocked subway platform with personal belongings, and refused to move them after being requested several times by complainant." The ticket also describes Jones as "unemployed."

Since his first encounter with police, Jones has been listening for other subway musicians' stories of trouble with the CTA. They've been arrested in the tunnels connecting the State and Dearborn subways and in the pedestrian walkway connecting the CTA to Marshall Field's. One of Jones's friends even got arrested while packing up his musical equipment at the end of the day.

"There are a lot of people who just come down occasionally in the evening, because they know that's when no one is going to hassle them," Jones says. "It's usually in the afternoon and especially in the morning when cops really hassle you. It's like they have nothing better to do in the morning. Most of the criminals are in bed or something. I wonder why the police do this. Who knows? They don't like musicians, I guess. One CTA supervisor would actually patrol up and down the line looking for musicians to bust. This guy is what, $40,000 a year salary? His whole job is to patrol up and down the subway looking for musicians to chase off. The combined total of all the incomes of all the musicians probably won't equal his salary."

Jones grew up in the Joliet area and attended the University of Illinois, graduating in 1988 with a degree in economics. There weren't, he says, "many jobs for a blind economist around," so he moved back to Joliet and improvised a living. He worked odd jobs and crafted decorative flowers out of copper wire. At night he made extra money by selling the flowers in bars. In 1992 he decided to try his luck in Chicago.

"I was looking for something," he says. "The situation didn't quite work out as I had originally planned. Then I ran into a street musician. In fact, I remember exactly where it was. It was right over there on Monroe and Wells. And he had a little amp out. He was playing his guitar underneath the el tracks and whistling. I got rapping with him, and he hands me the guitar and says, 'Here, play a tune.' I played the Eagles. 'Tequila Sunrise.' That was my first song. Some guy came along and handed us both a dollar. I said, 'Hey, this is great!'"

Jones only knew how to play a dozen or so tunes, but it was enough to start. He'd learned to play guitar as a kid, but had to give it up when he lost his sight. Later, in college, he dabbled in both guitar and piano and learned to read a little music in braille. After he met the street musician, he started playing guitar yet again. He listened to classic rock on the radio and gradually began to add to his repertoire. If he came across a song he liked, he'd tape it and practice until he learned it well enough to perform in public. Soon he was playing songs by the Beatles, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger, as well as Motown hits and "more contemporary stuff." He got his list up to more than 300 songs and tried to add new ones every week.

For four years, Jones went down to the subway every day and played from mid-afternoon until the end of rush hour. Sometimes he played outside during the summer, but only for a couple of hours, since Taylor would get too hot in the sun. He made enough to pay his rent and his bills, and managed to secure a handicapped-accessible studio apartment in River North. After two years he was pretty settled, and, for a street musician, living a fairly conventional life.

"It's a subculture, essentially," he says. "Not all of them have it together. I'll be the first to admit that. I'm probably the only subway musician you'll run into that's got a telephone. A lot of these guys don't. They aren't pretty much wired up to the world. A lot of them live hand to mouth. But hey, that's how they get started. There are some schmucks down there who play the same six songs over and over again, but some improve and become really good and move on to bigger and better things. Many guitar players who've played down there have moved on to bands. That's the last I've heard of them. The way to get good is to play many hours down there. And it pays off."

Jones had hoped that his subway playing would lead to a professional music career. But the CTA has finally scared him off. Maybe, Jones says, he'll "get the guts up" to play around the holidays. "I knew someday I would eventually leave the subway and move on to some other gig," he says. "But I didn't expect it to end this violently. That's for sure." He says he plans to enter a program to become a collections agent.

The CTA stands by its antipanhandler policy. CTA spokesperson Noelle Gaffney says last year's crackdown wasn't meant to affect street musicians and that the restricted zone policy has been in place since 1991. As for the musicians' complaints, she says, "That's really more of a police matter. There are people who go to other stations instead of the proper area. If police do get a complaint, more often than not they ask musicians to move along. But if they want to arrest someone, that's well within their right." Police say as long as the CTA has the law on the books it will continue to be enforced.

The solution, Jones says, is to get rid of the law. "Hey, some laws are unjust. It's fully an American tradition that if laws are unjust you fight to change them in some way. Segregation was the law 40 years ago. Do you think we should still have segregation? Now I'm sure someone would probably be upset that I compare the laws about subway restrictions to segregation laws, but the comparison is there.

"It seems to me the conformists have taken over the city. They're going after the street vendors, the sidewalk carts, the guys that hawk the papers. Anything that's different. Anybody that's not big money and doesn't conform to the general norm of society. They're trying to push them aside until Chicago becomes indistinguishable from Singapore. I'm not necessarily saying that Singapore is a bad place. But I wouldn't want to live there.

"Right now I stand alone. Ain't nobody coming to my aid. I need somebody on my side. But there's a great tradition of rock-and-roll and street music in Chicago. Things may change when people realize a piece of Chicago's about to disappear." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gary Jones photo by Randy Tunnell.

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