In the Mood

"I was selling portraits door-to-door, and the boss died, so I decided to go to the mall and play the clarinet. On my first day, I sat on a bench and made $60 playing one song after another. I didn't look up at anyone. I just played one song after another. So I told my son, 'I'm going to keep doing it.'"

The sun is out after a few days of rain, and the 16th Street Mall is one blur of bare legs, shirt-sleeves, flowing hair and white teeth. Since it's the 16th Street Mall, it's also one blur of change cups, grocery carts, bedraggled teenagers and traveling musicians warbling off-key versions of "Margaritaville."

The air is filled with the aroma of popcorn, boiled hotdogs, hot grease and car exhaust. The shuttle bus goes ding! ding! ding! The sidewalk fountains sputter and splash. The low rumble of springtime conversation drifts on the breeze.

Everywhere, at cafe tables, concrete benches, flower planters and curbsides, people are watching other people. The preacher with the American-flag shirt singing "Jesus Loves Me." The paraplegic leaning forward in her wheelchair to take a drag from a granddaughter's cigarette. The thin, blond egghead sliding a bishop across the concrete chessboard and claiming another checkmate.

Suddenly, a sound rises above the crowd like bubbles from the Lawrence Welk show. A polka. A waltz. A swami hypnotizing a cobra. It's a clarinet, an old-fashioned clarinet, there on the corner of 16th and Welton.

On the sidewalk, a little old man wearing faded clothes and an upturned baseball cap sits stiffly in his chair, head tilted back, tap shoes tapping, clarinet swaying to the melody of "Popeye the Sailorman." His chin is frosted with six-day stubble. His fingers are thick and callused. His blue eyes are focused somewhere in the clouds.

A teen waiting at the crosswalk drops a dollar in the tip bag. A businessman does the same. Then a woman. Then another woman. The traffic light changes and the crowd surges forward. The little man nods, licks his lips and launches into "America the Beautiful." Over his shoulder, in red and purple letters, hangs a shop sign that says, "Only in Colorado."


"That's not how it's originally spelled, but there are no American letters to spell it the way it's supposed to be spelled, so it's just Stawinski.

"I call myself the Clarinet Man, but everyone at the Rockies games calls me 'Pops.' I'm growing a beard so people won't recognize me. There's a reason the greatest people all had whiskers. I don't know why, but there must be a reason.

"Just call me Adam."


"Since I was sixteen. Dad played accordion. He brought me a violin and I played a song the first day. Dad called people up, and I played songs for them over the phone.

"Dad played weddings and polka bands by ear. He was an alcoholic, too. He had a horse and wagon and sold vegetables door-to-door. He was from the Old Country. Poland. He had five girls. I was the only boy.

"My whole life has been music, but I gave it up for a while. I was trying to play weddings but I couldn't, because my teeth were bad and I kept fouling up. I could never get ahead with the clarinet.

"I joined the Army and played in a band. I went to Guadalcanal, Hawaii and New Zealand. I played at the end of the tour just to see what it was like, but I wasn't too good. For a while it hurt because I had bad teeth. But I got them pulled, and now I play better. I can bite down with my gums. I'm sorry I didn't get them out a long time ago. If you want to learn how to play clarinet, get all your teeth out."

"I came out to Denver because I heard the climate was good. I sold vacuum cleaners in Indiana. I sold a hundred vacuum cleaners a month six different times. I made a lot of money. I had three houses, but I lost them. I had nine kids--six boys and three girls--but I couldn't get along with the wife.

"In those days, I made $15,000 to $20,000 a year. I averaged fifty vacuum cleaners a month. I sold from morning to night going door-to-door. I saw two or three hundred people per day. I asked them, 'Do you want to buy an Electrolux?' Some people hesitated, so I demonstrated for them. Vacuum cleaners were just getting started then, so it was easier.

"Later I found out Electroluxes were not the best, but people knew about them, so I sold them anyway. In Denver I sold Kirbys. I made money there, too."

"I have a thousand songs written down. I play them by ear. 'In the Mood.' 'Stormy Weather.' 'Hello, Dolly!' 'Four Leaf Clover.' The old songs. That's all I play.

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