Shakespeare, the statue, bends his bronzed body stiffly to play rock-paper-scissors with a little girl passing by on Main Street. It’s a sweet moment. And I don’t know who wins the game. But I do know Shakespeare won’t speak, not even to me, a guy with a Reporter’s notebook getting a sense of the street scene on a Saturday afternoon. You’d think the fellow behind the steel-screen eyes would come out of character long enough to publicize his cause: A hand-out says he’s raising money to “fund a permanent statue of the Bard in Ashland.”
Hmmmm…A permanent statue? In Ashland? I would have liked to ask Will if he’d communed with Lincoln, one statue to another. You know, Lincoln at the gateway to Lithia Park who kept losing his head until they gave him an oddly swollen one, before disappearing him entirely. (I never could figure that out.)
I have better luck with the living stone statue of the gold prospector posing beside his trusty pick-axe between City Hall and Martolli’s Pizza. Between gigs on Main Street and the Britt Festival, 53-year-old Mike Vest says he manages to make some kind of a living, about 10 bucks an hour, most days. An actor in southern California for 35 years, he did a few movies and played a few lead roles in regional theatre before taking his hard turn to the statue biz. (“I prefer this because I can call my own hours,” he says.)
Mike has the costume down, with stippled greasepaint on his face and stone-colored paint from Ace Hardware coating his denim vest and waders and his nearly opaque glasses. The butterscotch gold nuggets he gives away to kids are part of his shtick—and his marketing plan. Appreciative and semi-guilt-tripped parents tend to chuck in a buck or two, he says.
His inspiration came five years ago when he and his son were on an Art Walk and saw the street musicians’ instrument cases filling with cash. “I don’t play an instrument, so my son said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a living statue mime?’” A couple of months later, he announced his intentions to his wife. “She thought I was crazy.”
He premiered his act in the garb of a mariner as the Brookings, Oregon Harbor Statue Guy. (You can check him out on YouTube.) In those early days he worked with a partner named Pierre, a ring-necked dove who solidified his stature as a statue by perching on his shoulder. Pierre died six months ago and Mike says he’s still in mourning.
Though he says the gig is mostly fun, July Fourth here left him limping. “A group of teenage boys felt they just had to kick me in the leg, and then go running off. It’s definitely not an easy holiday for a statue.”
A few steps away, 18-year-old street poet Tara Borgilt, a recent Ashland High School grad, is pecking at her 50s’-era laptop. It’s a Royal “Quiet Deluxe” typewriter she picked up at a Medford antique store and jerry-rigged with a black and red ribbon from an adding machine. Passersby, like this guy with a guitar case who just wandered away to hang at the plaza, commission her to stream her consciousness and come up with something on the spur. When—and if—her musician customer comes back, she’ll hand him a typo-filled first draft—she doesn’t do second draft—of a “letter to the guitar case:
“Black velvet, house of music…how do you feel to be laid open like a filleted fish…how does it feel to be so full of possibilities…”
Once, while writing on the streets of Sausalito, Tara said she made $24, “but it’s not about the money.”
Wooden flutist Allen Casey Jones 30, who’s staked out a shady doorway of the Shakespeare Festival Welcome Center for himself and his two sprawling sleepy dogs, would like it to be about the money, but his take looked like a pittance.
“I play for the birds and the trees and whatever people want to listen. Today, it seems to me more for the cars. They don’t give me money,” he adds with a wry smile, “but they feel my pain.”
A leather worker and wood carver, Allen’s been living on the road in his van for eight years, selling his crafts and making music, shuttling mostly between Flagstaff, Ariz., Asheville, N.C. and the Rogue Valley where he has some family. For hair, he sports mutton chops and what he calls “a dread-hank, a Mohawk cut in dreadlock form.” Though he had a scholarship for guitar at Arizona State University, the flute, he says, works best when he’s working as a busker on the street. “There’s less competition and the sound draws people in.”
I can’t say 24-year-old Nicholas Alexander’s guitar playing drew me in—he didn’t start playing until some street guy in Atlanta sold him the instrument three months ago for 25 bucks, but he gets me with a story that could have come from a Tom Robbins novel.
The story started when he left behind a lucrative pot-growing business in Southern California—and Santa Barbara City College where he was studying film—to follow his dream.
The dream was to buy a school bus Back East, equip it to run on vegetable oil, and turn it into the rolling headquarters for a “sustainable skateboard company” as well as a platform to promote aquaponics, a means of farming vegetables and fish within the same water-based system.
And that’s only the beginning, says Nicholas. “My real dream is to take the proceeds of the skateboard sales and open a Golden Skate Army “Park”—modeled after the Salvation Army—to provide housing and a food supply for homeless people.” The skateboards, by the way, would be manufactured with bamboo or hemp instead of graphite and Fiberglas.
Nicholas’ journey hasn’t been smooth. He did buy a full-size GMC school bus in Tampa for $3,600, but when he returned to the West Coast, he discovered that his former partners in pot had absconded with the product and the profits. (“I’m finished with pot. There’s too much negative energy in that business.”)
Without the capital to launch his skateboard business—and with the city of Santa Barbara having “kicked the bus out”—Nicholas retreated north to Washington for the annual Rainbow Gathering. Sixty miles shy, the bus broke down. The repairs cost $900—Nicholas raised the cash by selling his motorcycle and a generator—but the fix only lasted 10 miles. At which point, he traded the bus for a 24-ft. 1986 RV which, he hopes, will take him back to Santa Barbara to complete his degree.
When Nicholas is finished, he asks if I want to hear a song.
“Sure,” I say.
I don’t know if he gets the irony.
The song he sings is by The Doors: “People are Strange.”