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Drumming up business

Sixth Ave Bongo Dude attracts Sixth Avenue shoppers with music

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When I tell him who I am and what my purpose is, the man apologizes and says he’s tired. “My mind is like a fried egg,” he explains, apologizing that his rebuttals may not be witty.

In my book, use of the word ”rebuttal” takes him out of the “fried egg brain” category, as he talks his intelligence and wry humor peek through despite his sleep deprivation.

He offers his name as simply David, but I can’t quite shake my name for him: “Sixth Ave Bongo Dude.”

David’s been playing his bongos, tambourine with one noisemaker on it, and cymbals on the sidewalk for roughly three years and three months.  He played when the snow was coming down, during the worst of the rains, and even today, as the chill in the air belies the sunny sky. But he doesn’t play all day — “I just do three of four hours a day and hightail it out of here,” he explains.

He’s not a busker, though, playing with a hat on the ground or opened violin case: “I’m rarely tipped,” he allows with a smile.

David is a business owner, and his shop front, Vintage Arts, home of all things kitchy and crazy, sits brightly behind him and spills onto the sidewalk.

“I’m an Air Force Brat,” he explains, adding that in his travels, he’s spent time in Southeast Asia and the Philippines.  While there, the main streets made an impact on him.  Shop owners sat in front of their shops with their goods nearby; “They pushed their shops to the sidewalks,” he explains, and talks of how this created a social, vital shopping atmosphere. “I wish more people would do it.”

His music, he says, is a means of attracting shoppers, and he points out the music we’re listening to overhead — Mance Lipscome — and then he points out the jackknife guitar, and the lyrics, “Come back baby, let’s talk it over.”

He walks me through the shop, past the ‘70s-era furniture, clown paintings, vintage clothing, painted mannequins, and electronics I think I remembered having in my house growing up.  The clutter is overwhelming, a little freaky, and weirdly comforting to me.

The music changes, and David smiles broadly.  “I’m gonna get drunk and holler over town,” go the blues, and David speaks along to them, saying how he loves to visualize Lipscome doing just that.

On the topic of shop music, David mentions Tom Waits, his perennial favorite that he never plays at Vintage Arts.

He explains, “Tom Waits is not very Sixth Avenue friendly — he’s constantly screaming.”

But bongos never scream.

And David settles into his sidewalk chair, next to a chaise on which a vintage-clad mannequin reclines, and begins his rhythm as the diners of Sixth Avenue begin to appear.

[Vintage Arts, 3014 Sixth Ave., Tacoma]

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