HOW IT ALL BEGAN
"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.'"
A RECENT FRIDAY
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."
WHO IS THIS GUY?
"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."
WHERE HE'S FROM
HOW LONG HE'S BEEN PLAYING
"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."
WHY HE CAME TO DENVER
"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."
A THOUSAND SONGS
"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.
"I like Benny Goodman for rhythm and Artie Shaw for tone. Goodman is the best, but I can't play like him. I can't do the fingering so well. But I don't try to imitate anyone. I just play my own way.
"I tried tambourines on my feet and it sounded good, but it was too much trouble putting them on. Now I keep rhythm with taps. I tried playing with a drummer once, but he couldn't hear me play, and I had to move away by myself. I'm satisfied with what I've got."
A QUICK DETOUR
"What I'm really worried about is the cancer of the breast. I wish women wouldn't wear brassieres. The skin needs air flowing over it to breathe. It's like socks. If you have tight socks, it's not too good for the feet. I think women should let themselves go free. If they could."
BACK TO THE STORY
"At baseball games, marches are the most popular. They ask me to play marches, but I don't know all of them, so I ask them to hum a few bars, and after that I'm able to fake it.
"When people arrive, I play 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' 'Popeye the Sailorman' and the Notre Dame fight song. When they come out, I play 'In the Mood' and 'Elmer's Tune.' I try other songs, but people always say, 'Play "Popeye."' 'Play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."' If they stood and listened, they'd get tired of hearing the same songs, but people are always going by and saying they want to hear those songs.
"Sometimes I squeak too much when I play 'In the Mood' because my fingers get cold, but people don't seem to mind. They put in a hundred dollars an hour anyway."
SPEAKING OF BASEBALL
"How about the Rockies? I think they need to change the manager. He's not the right kind. There's no excitement in the bull pen. If I was there, I'd play 'In the Mood' every time someone got a hit. I'd get the players really hepped up.
"That's something I learned selling vacuum cleaners. You've got to have excitement. You have to act like you're selling the best vacuum cleaner on the market. You can't just sit back on the couch. You've got to get up and walk around and get excited. I wasn't excited, but you have to act like you are.
"That's how I did it. I sold vacuum cleaners in two minutes. Three minutes. I got a book on selling, and it showed how to get excited. No matter what you do, if you get excited, you can do good. You can't just sit down and relax and dream. You've got to get the excitement.
"I think I could manage that team."
A RECENT FRIDAY: PART II
Adam takes a breather between songs and punches the button on a cassette player beside his chair. He forgets a tune now and again and has to check himself against a tape.
The traffic light changes.
The crowd surges by.
A toddler waddles toward Adam with her hand outstretched, but she's yanked back at the last minute. "No, dear," her mom says. "I don't think he would like a crayon."
Across the mall, a dark man in a straw cowboy hat watches the scene from behind sunglasses. Slowly, quietly, he opens a black case and produces a saxophone. While Adam sips from a can of iced tea, the man begins to play. Loudly.
Adam, sensing the challenge, raises his clarinet, takes a deep breath and plays "America the Beautiful."
The sax man, sensing the challenge, raises his horn, inhales deeply and plays something unrecognizable.
For several minutes, the 16th Street Mall becomes a warm-up session at high-school band class.
A teenager at a pay phone clamps a hand over his ear. "What?" he says. "I can't hear you. These two guys are playing these damn horns..."
The contest is neck and neck.
Adam licks his lips, relaxes his shoulders and launches into his signature tune, "In the Mood."
His clarinet sizzles.
The sax man watches a while, lowers his instrument and shakes his head. Slowly, carefully, he packs his horn, adjusts his cowboy hat and walks away.
THE STRANGEST THING HE EVER SAW
"The strangest thing I ever saw happened a few years ago. People were walking down the street, it was real cold, and a woman was walking by fully naked. She walked three or four blocks without anything on. The police came and got her near Walgreens. She just walked down the street fully naked. That's the strangest thing I ever saw."
THE BIGGEST TIP HE EVER GOT
"It was $350. I was in Hollywood, California, and the guy went by and put in $350 and just walked away. I didn't know who he was. He just put in the money and walked away. That was five years ago."
THE BEST VACUUM CLEANER THERE IS
"I like the Rainbow and the Filter Queen. The Rainbow uses water instead of a bag, and the Filter Queen uses a cone to separate the dirt. The Rainbow costs $1,500, and the Filter Queen costs $2,700.
"Not many people own the Rainbow. They don't like changing the water. But if I wanted to buy one for a lifetime, I'd buy the Filter Queen. It's a purifying vacuum. It purifies the air while it cleans.
"Or a Royal Upright. They're lightweight and easy to use. A Kirby is too heavy. I have about fifty rebuilt Kirbys in the store. I don't know what to do with them. If anyone wants to buy one, I'd sell it with no tax."
"I was an altar boy until I was twenty years old. I was brainwashed. I don't believe in religion, because no one ever proved it. As far as dying goes, I don't think of dying. Because when I die, it's over with. I won't be playing the clarinet anymore."
MORE RANDOM THOUGHTS
"I played Vegas once. I sat outside the Stardust for three months and made one hundred dollars a day. I was investing in the dog races. And drinking. I've been drinking all my life. Beers every night. I gave it up after I got cirrhosis of the liver. I quit drinking ten years ago, and it's all cleared up.
"I don't have a doctor. I never go to a doctor. Once you go to a doctor, you're hooked. A doctor will always find a reason to keep you coming back. If he finds something wrong, he's got you. One way or another, he'll get you back.
"I take care of my own health. I quit drinking and smoking, and now I feel better than I ever have. I'm 79 years old."
STILL MORE RANDOM THOUGHTS
"I have a [vacuum] store, but it's not opened for business. I stay there like it's a home. When I go to California, the boys take care of it. None of my kids play clarinet. They're too busy with their friends. One tried the trombone. He's driving a cab now. His name is Bob. People like him."
"We're getting off on everything but the clarinet, but I have so much on my mind."
BACK TO THE STORY
"I like to practice outside. I like 16th and Welton or 16th and California; it's more of a steady population. I've been wanting to go to Hawaii, because I heard a guy plays flute there and makes a hundred dollars a day--and cops don't bother him.
"Cops always find a reason to stop you. Either you're blocking traffic or making noise. Some policemen are bad because they don't like music. They don't know what music is. But you've got to go by what they say. If one person complains and a million people are happy, they go with that one person. If someone says it hurts business, you've got to move on.
"I take a bus or a car. Mostly the bus. I don't have car insurance. Insurance is against my religion. But the bad thing is, you meet a lot of weirdos on the bus. I go in a bar to use the phone and a restaurant to count my money. People at the ballpark are like guardians of mine.
"I don't talk to many people. I just play a song, and if someone stops to talk, I play another song. I play high and loud until they get tired of it and leave. If they're old people I play fast songs, and pretty soon they leave. I don't know. You've got to judge people."
ON THE ROAD
"I played Venice Beach and made $80, but there were too many people. I was thinking of going to New Orleans, but there are too many people there, too. I'm thinking about playing rest stops.
"The one at Barstow is the best. I went there with my boy. I got my clarinet and tried it out. I made $30 in one hour. There are no bums or panhandlers. There is no one asking for money. It's all rich people going to Vegas. And they all need to go to the bathroom. The crowd is always different, too, so I can play the same songs. I've never seen anyone doing that before. This winter I'm trying it out."
"I filed my mouthpiece down and it's a better mouthpiece. It's not in A-1 shape, but as long as you get the right reed, you're okay. You have to find the right clarinet, too. The one I have is about twenty years old. It's cracked in places. I've got a metal one, too. But none of them work real good. I'm looking for a new one.
"This is the kind of instrument you have to play all the time. I practice two hours a day. I still have to learn to get my mouth in the right direction, but I'm getting better. I'm older now, too, but I don't care. I make the people happy when I play. I make money and I make people happy. "I'll keep playing until people get tired of it."
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A RECENT FRIDAY: PART III
It's hot outside. Adam's been here two hours. He's tired, and his face is red and puffy. Squinting up at the sun, he looks like a doll made from a dried apple.
Time to go.
He reaches under his chair for the clarinet case and begins disassembling the instrument in slow motion. First the mouthpiece. Then the reed. Next he gathers his song list from the sidewalk and places it inside a satchel with a handwritten placard on the side: "A Tape of Me in 10/22/90. Over 60 songs. $5."
The traffic light changes.
The crowd surges by.
Adam unlaces his tap shoes, one, then the other, and slips on a pair of black-and-white Everlast sneakers. He slings the clarinet case over his shoulder, grabs the satchel and shuffles with a slight limp toward a bus stop three blocks away.
The corner is quiet. On a bench in the shade, a man in a gray business suit is absentmindedly drumming his fingers. He hums, taps his foot a little and begins to sing, "I'm looking over a four-leaf clover...