A Nickel for a Smile
by Vesta Clare
Danny first heard Kate & Mike’s music as he shivered out of the 24th Street Mission BART station into a cold San Francisco night. They were set up just outside the exit, and the bass notes of their R&B-Reggae mix bounced around Danny’s legs like eager dogs, pestering him to move with their beat. He stepped out of sync with a purpose and ignored the musicians.
After working two of his three jobs, making about half what he’d earned a few years back? No way was he dancing his way out of the station. He was headed home to a small apartment he shared with four other people and not looking forward to it.
A few days later the invasion-of-happiness duo were at 24th Street again. By the time Danny exited the fare gates on the station’s upper level, he’d stepped on some gum that wouldn’t scrape off one of his high-tops, his knapsack had been shoved off his shoulder twice by tunnel-visioned smartphone addicts, and some kid being carried by his mom had shrieked, without warning, about eight inches from Danny’s ear. The perfect ending to another crappy day.
It got even better when he walked into the full Kate & Mike effect.
Other musicians—the sincere one-man band who always looked nervous, the classical violinist who was so good she made you want to weep, the rapper outside on the plaza who usually had to compete with somebody lecturing on religion—they all let you decide whether to listen or not. Kate jumped in front of Danny, did two dance-steps, and jumped back beside Mike. Danny glared at her. She smiled back.
Kate had a low, smoky-blue voice. Mike played guitar and sang harmony in a higher, reedier tone. Her hair was too red to be natural, frothy with curls. He looked like Harry Dean Stanton circa Two Lane Blacktop. She wore fiery-wild colors, a thrift-store mashup of two skirts, one shorter than the other, and three tops, long-sleeved, elbow-length, and short. He wore jeans, boots, a dark blue shirt, and a denim jacket. There was a beat up leather mailman’s bag slung across his back.
Their sign read:
Kate & Mike
$0.05 if we make you smile
$0.25 if you move to the beat
$0.75 if you sing along
$1.00 if we make you dance
$2.00 if you help out on harmony
They looked so freaking god-damned happy, Danny wondered if they were from planet earth. His toe accidentally caught on their guitar case-donation box. Irritated, he kicked it out of his way and that sent it off kilter, till the back of its lid faced people walking by.
A few coins hit the raised top instead of landing inside. Kate just waved at him and dance-shuffled it back into place. He noticed then that they weren’t doing too badly; it looked like around forty bucks in there. Kate scooped the bills up and stuffed them into the leather bag hanging across Mike’s back. Danny couldn’t see inside the bag, but it had a well-fed look, like it already held at least two portions of scooped up bills.
In other words, probably more than he’d earned that day.
His good days, his bike messenger days, were behind him. He’d burned through the city like a human-powered rocket, sliced the air between cars and buses, through crosswalk traffic, other bikes. Clients impressed at how fast he was gave him crazy-huge tips that made the days really sing. Then an SUV clipped his back wheel and sent him flying onto the hood of a car racing the other way. Not that he saw the SUV, which sped away too, but the people who’d helped him saw it all.
Weekends he got off work later and his days ended closer to a bus line than BART. Saturday and Sunday nights, on his way home, he passed people curled up in doorways or not quite hidden by bushes or dumpsters, their eyes closed in what passed for rest out on the street. Danny felt their tumble from life under a roof. He also felt the hungry stare of that fall aimed right at his own thin margin for survival.
On Tuesday, when the crowded train slowed for 24th Street, there were three arguments in the seats and aisle near Danny that alternated between simmer and full boil: a couple in their twenties who spoke the Brazilian Portuguese of one of Danny’s coworkers, a mother and her teen-aged daughter who sounded Russian, and two guys in their thirties wearing San Jose Sharks jerseys. Their voices turned the air bright with friction. Danny’s shoulders tensed.
Back in the day, he’d waded into other people’s spats and found the angle or laugh that defused them. Not anymore. Coming back from the accident was a high octane time-and-money suck. Danny hadn’t been able to take over the messenger business like he and the retiring owner had planned, ended up in debt instead, lost his apartment. Now he struggled at the lesser-skilled end of the employment spectrum, walked with a limp, and avoided eye contact. Meanwhile rents had gone from barely manageable to only the wealthy need apply.
Danny kept his head down until the brakes sapped the train’s forward motion, then stepped closer to the door. He didn’t need to look at his glass reflection to know it showed dark end-of-the day stubble and skin gone pale from too many hours under fluorescent lights instead of the sun.
He got off the train, let all the arguers pass, and slouched along in their wake. As they neared the doors that led to escalators for street level, Kate & Mike’s singing began to filter through the noise of trains and station announcements. The heated voices ahead of him cooled as the music got louder.
They all funneled through the doors and emerged into the music. Kate danced and waved or smiled at everyone walking by. She whirled in front of one of the hockey fans, He laughed, did a few dance steps with her, dropped a couple of bills in the guitar case.
The Brazilian woman did a subtle samba move on her way by and her boyfriend left a shower of coins. The teen-aged girl smiled at Kate’s clothes, eyes wide. She said something to her mother, who gave her a stern look and shook her head “no.” Someone sang along in what almost sounded like harmony. Kate called out “Okay, you need to work on that a little. We’ll give you a pass this time.” That got some laughs.
Twice a week, every week, Danny endured their music. And he saw that guitar case filled with bills and coins, the leather bag thick with its own part of the day’s earnings.
Then, on a Sunday, he was sorting through returned movies at the counter of an indie video place, one of the few left in the city, when someone familiar entered the empty shop and walked past him. Danny watched the slow walk, the dark clothes. He ran through his memory for a match with whoever it was while he separated DVDs and Blu-rays into categories so he could put them back on the shelves.
The color of her hair finally tipped him off. It was Kate of Kate & Mike, except the frothy curls were pulled back into a frazzley knot. She was wearing jeans with a dark jacket and an expression to match. Danny followed her down the aisle, determined to get payback for every time he’d had to put up with her smiley-faced music—dancing and singing like life was just fine.
“Help you find something?”
“I need something cheerful,” she said.
They faced each other in the main aisle.
“You’re joking, right? You need something cheerful?”
She gave him a tired look.
“C’mon,” he said, “every time I see you at 24th Street, you guys are nearly levitating with happiness. Like the rest of us dumb fucks need a lesson on outlook or some damned thing.”
She crossed her arms, her voice calm. “All due respect and everything, but yours could use a little fine-tuning.”
“Really?” He waved his arm in a gesture that took in the quiet store, its buzzing lights, bin-cluttered aisles, wall displays of both new and classic movie posters. “You see something here to get all thrilled and excited about?”
Kate followed the arc of his gesture. “I see four walls that keep the weather out and a regular paycheck.” She shrugged, frowned. “What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong? I’m closer to thirty than twenty and I’m working high school jobs. Three of them, to be exact. And that paycheck barely stretches from here to next Thursday. So it’s all very nice for you guys, making a guitar-case full of money every night tax free…”
She touched his shoulder with a light finger and said, “Let me stop you right there. You remember the fires up north last fall?”
Danny looked at her like she’d switched subjects to quantum physics. He frowned in distrust and said “Sure, right.”
“We helped an old couple in the next valley get out of their house and into a shelter. Then the winds changed. When we got back home, it wasn’t there. We lost the little house we were renting, everything in it, and all our animals. We had goats that cleared brush, dogs that protected the goats. So,” she counted the list out on her fingers, “home, source of income, entire family of animals, belongings, stash of money—gone. We’re living in our van now, the one we drove to our neighbors’.”
Danny put his hands on his hips. “Jesus.”
“Well, he seems to have been taking care of somebody else’s troubles that day.”
“Okaaaay,” he drew the word out, “but hang on. The music, the dancing, all that happy-happy. What the hell’s that about?”
She leaned forward. “It’s all we’ve got, okay?”
Danny squinted, skeptical.
Kate pulled back a little. “Look, we used to sing just for fun. After the fire, friends gave us a guitar and some equipment to replace what we lost. Kinda like a gift from better days. We came down here to play in the street. For now it keeps us in gas and food and laundry money while we figure out what to do next.”
“All due respect,” Danny leaned forward, “that doesn’t answer my question. “What’s with all the happy-dance crap?”
“You think I wake up in the morning feeling like that?” Kate’s expression flared with amazement. “It’s the music. It keeps us from drowning in what we’ve lost. And it lightens other people up, too. I see it in their faces when they go by.” Her focus sharpened, like she’d noticed something about Danny.
He stiffened, ready for insults.
“What do you like to listen to?” she asked.
“Nothing. I like silence.” Time was, his after-work life rocked with industrial-strength metal, money for clubs and nights out, friends. Danny looked away, stopped his slide into the nostalgia rabbit hole, got his attitude back in place.
Kate shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t believe you. And walling yourself off? That’s not gonna work. Music will make you feel better, guaranteed.” She tapped him lightly on the shoulder again. “Might even make you smile.”
“If you say so.”
“Can’t stop the fires and floods. Day-to-day, though, we get back what we send out, you know? It’s like a…whatever you call it. A boomerang.”
Danny scrabbled his fingers through his hair like there was something in there he needed to get rid of. Send out high-on-life vibes when every day of his life sucked? “Sorry, I just don’t follow you, there.” Then he put his hands up as a sign of ending the conversation. “Glad it works for you though.” It didn’t come out sounding entirely sarcastic.
“It’ll work for you too. There’s nothing special about us.”
“Okay, fine.” Kate smiled like she was demonstrating how do it. “I’ve said my piece. So show me where the comedies are. No Blu-rays, something we can watch on a computer.”
“They’re over there.” He pointed, then dropped his arm. “So hold on a second, how’d you pay for a computer?”
“A guy who stopped to listen one night. He was holding this cool-looking notebook under his arm. It had an Asian landscape on the lid, like black ink on an ivory background, you know? He caught me eyeing it. Turned out he was taking his daughter’s old computer to some donation place. When he found out what happened to our stuff, he gave it to us instead. It’s slow, nothing on it but the basics, but we just need WiFi and a DVD drive.”
“Come on. He just gave you a computer?”
She looked at him. “It was a really sweet thing to do. But I mean, what, you think he’s going to charge us for it? Turn it into some money-making thing? It’s called helping each other out.”
Danny tried to remember the last time he’d been surprised by something that wasn’t some new strain of the same old bad news. He was done with the conversation.
Kate shook her head. “My turn to say come on. Just try this. Once a day, listen to music you like or smile at someone, okay?”
On Tuesday, Danny nearly got off at 16th Street. But he decided to tough it out and waited for 24th. Kate’s expression brightened a kilowatt or two when she saw him. Her announcement to the other riders was, “I see someone from VideoNest, the best movie, DVD, Blu-ray, whatever, shop in the city. If I catch any of you getting movies anywhere else, I’m gonna kick you in the you-know-where!” She launched into a can-can kick and flipped the back of her skirt up.
Danny groaned. He dropped a nickel and some pennies into the guitar case, the only change he had. Giving her a smile―that was more than he could spare. Some other time, maybe.