In Village, A Musical Street Culture
By Arielle Dollinger
This article originally ran in the August 7, 2014 editions of The Long Islander, Half Hollow Hills Long Islander and Record newspapers.
They appear in the village before the sun sets, claiming spots that are theirs by unwritten code.
A boy with a folded red, white and blue bandana tied around his forehead plays the tenor saxophone outside of the shoe store. A little girl, her hair in a ponytail, plays the violin outside of the bank across from Honu. An older man plays the Harmonica outside of Starbucks, in a spot sometimes occupied by a young man playing flamenco guitar.
They are the “buskers” of Huntington village — the individuals whose street performances instigate both curiosity and social awkwardness.
As suggested by Merrium-Webster, the title, “busker,” comes from the Italian “boscare” – ‘to procure, gain’ – and the Spanish “buscar” – ‘to look for.’ But to define them seems the antithesis of their existence.
They are the “creative types,” said harmonica player Nick Carbonaro, as he sat on an orange crate on the sidewalk one early July evening.
“You take all the artists, and all the musicians, and all the creative types out of here, and what do you have? A bunch of zombies,” Carbonaro said.
Once or twice a week during the summer season, and then into the fall, the 59-year-old stations himself outside of Starbucks. To his left are a blue laundry basket, turned upside down to act as a table for a speaker, and an oval-shaped plastic tip bin.
“It’s a good corner,” he said. “There’s a lot of action here.”
The village, as he sees it, is “like a microcosm of the world.”
“You’ve got different people, different colors, different races, different orientations, you’ve got everything out here,” he said.
Carbonaro lives a seven-minute walk from the corner, on “the outskirts of the village.” He moved to Huntington alone five years ago and spends his days swimming at the beach, exercising, reading and playing music. He sits in with bands sometimes — he was to sit in with a reggae band at Prime the following night.
“I’m just doing things I enjoy doing; this is one of them,” he said. “I live a very laid-back, simple, as-uncomplicated-as-I-can-possibly-make-it life.”
The Northport native was in a blues band that broke up because of “internal issues,” but he still wanted to play.
Now, as a street performer, he comes, he plays and he leaves, he said — no complications.
“I come out here first and foremost to play for myself,” he said. “I play the songs the way I want to play them… It gives me the freedom to create something original.”
If someone were in his usual spot when he arrived, he would leave, he noted; there is a certain courtesy that he said is “very important.”
“It’s really first come, first serve,” he said. And there is an aspect of seniority.
As far as money goes, he said, he gets by. Sometimes passersby leave money in the plastic bin, sometimes they do not.
“Nobody’s arm’s getting twisted,” he said. “I don’t get mad or upset or anything… I thank everybody; I don’t care if they give me a penny, or if they put a $20 bill in there.”
When Carbonaro and his crate are not on the sidewalk outside of the coffee shop, there are others in their place.
Classical and flamenco guitarist Eran Polat takes the spot sometimes.
The twenty-three-year-old started busking in the Hamptons. He has played at Penn Station, in Times Square, at subway stations. After moving to Huntington, the Turkey-native began playing outside of Starbucks and The Water Well — the shop of which he happens to be an employee.
Eventually, he began to take his music inside Huntington establishments, as well.
“Once I started making connections in the street, I started playing at weddings, I started playing at clubs, bars, private parties,” he said in a phone interview.
He has played restaurants in Huntington village, concerts at the Cinema Arts Centre and, most recently, the village’s newest decades-old bar: old-fashioned, speakeasy-type P’s & Q’s Autobody, whose roof and walls belonged to The Artful Dodger until Spike TV reality series “Bar Rescue” reinvented it this year.
“[P’s & Q’s] gave me a chance to play there last night and they loved it and they want me back again,” he said Saturday.
Polat came to the United States with his family 10 years ago. In Turkey, he was set to become a soccer player, he said; when he arrived in the United States, he was disappointed to find that soccer was not as popular as it was in his home country.
“It was very difficult, very difficult at first,” he said. “That’s when I picked up the guitar.”
Today, Polat both works and attends school. Aside from working at the Water Well, he teaches Argentine Tango in Manhattan and in the Huntington area. When he completes his degree in music performance at Nassau Community College, his goal is to attend Adelphi for education and to then work toward a masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
Having moved to Huntington four years ago, he considers Huntington his home now.
“I love Huntington,” he said. “This is my home, this is my love… Every year it’s a new adventure. Every night, every day.”
And on many of those nights and days, he takes his guitar to that night’s sidewalk spot.
The energy of each night is different, he said. When the energy is high, he said, people react differently than they do on a low-energy night.
“People come, they listen, more people come, they listen, they start dancing,” he said. “It’s like a block party in Huntington sometimes… And it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Sometimes the rewards are figurative, and sometimes they are literal.
“Some people are incredibly drunk, they love the music and they’re like, ‘Here you go, one dollar,’ and it’s a hundred dollar bill,” said Polat, noting that most of the money he makes performing comes from selling his CDs at $10 each.
Usually, he said, people follow the sound, curious to know where it is coming from.
“You have many nationalities, very different ethnicities and, you know, not many of them [know flamenco music],” he said.
Starbucks declined to comment on the street performers, according to an employee at Huntington’s Wall St. location.
Meanwhile, on a nearby corner, passersby are investigating a different sound. Outside of shoe store Aerosoles is the boy in the bandana.
Fifteen-year-old Josh Siegel has been playing in the village for about a year and a half — a result of a desire to earn money to buy things for himself.
“It’s hard to get a job at 13,” he said.
He asked his father — a man who walks the village streets while his son plays and checks in every so often — to go into the Manhattan to play on its streets. That “didn’t really work out,” and eventually, Siegel started playing in Huntington.
“I love it,” he said. “I love the feeling of people enjoying music.”
The rising ninth grader plays the alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, bass, guitar, drums and piano. He is learning to play the cello.
“An instrument is like a language,” he said. “If you learn five instruments, it’s like cake from there.”
But to “master” an instrument, he said, is not quite cake.
“To become good at an instrument is very easy, but to master an instrument is very hard,” said Siegel, who grew up in a household in which there was “always music” and started playing the sax when he was 12.
As his father walks the village, he checks in with both Josh and the violinist outside of the bank across from Honu: Josh’s sister, Mayah.
Mayah, at 11 years old, has been playing the violin for three years. She started playing on the streets about two months ago in an effort to save up for new instruments.
“Our parents like us to manage our money,” she says, explaining that she and her brother use “the jar system” to save money in categories like “education” — for books or music lessons — and “play” — for activities with friends.
Mayah and Josh have a younger sister, also, but the eight-year-old does not play on the streets yet. The family lives in Plainview now, but used to live in Huntington.
“We know the town’s just very perky,” Mayah said, her already-bright eyes lighting up. “It’s a very high-spirited town.”
Mayah, who also practices gymnastics, plays the violin, viola and cello. She also sings.
“It gives you a good feeling, knowing that people like your music,” Mayah said.
And they make the money they set out to make.
Maya once made $115 in one night, she said, after a Paramount concert let out.
Josh made $200 for playing a birthday party at Honu one night, he said. A man stopped his car as he drove by, asked if Josh would be playing there again the next week, and told him that he would be back then and would signal him when he needed him to walk up to Honu. Josh would walk to Honu and play his birthday party, for a reward of $200.
And his financially-themed anecdotes don’t stop there: one night, he said, he was playing and noticed a string with money coming from the sky. He looked up to find that people in an upper-level apartment were sending money down on a string and praising his playing.
Someone threw a lemon into his case once. He asked what to use it for, before realizing that you “make lemonade!”
But not everyone gives praise.
An Aerosoles sales associate said that having buskers outside of the store has an effect on its own profits.
“It kind of drives people away,” said the associate, who requested anonymity.
Her theory is that some passersby avoid the situation if they feel “obligated” to give money and do not want to.
“I think it’s great [to have street performers in town], maybe not necessarily in front of the stores. If they’re kind of in the middle of the street, or kind of on a corner, I think it’s great, nice to watch.”
Busking in Huntington Village is legal. According to town spokesman, A.J. Carter, “There is no town code prohibiting or regulating street performing.”
The not-so-underground busking community is just that, the performers agree: a community.
“I’m friends with pretty much everybody who plays here,” said Josh.
But there is a business side, too. Josh, at 15, has his own business cards; many people request them, he says.