Violinist provides a balm at Georgetown street corner

September 26, 2012

The violinist chose the steps of Georgetown’s golden-domed PNC bank as his stage.

He placed a plastic jug in his open violin case and set a music stand nearby. He plugged his iPod into an amp to provide background music as he prepared to pluck tunes from popular movies.

Early one recent evening, traffic was thick at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW. Swells of humanity — moms with crying babies, men in business suits, shoppers carrying bags from United Colors of Benetton and Anthropologie — marched past the man who was setting the street soundtrack in a diligent rhythm.

The music man struggles to figure out his own. Bill Hassay Jr. started playing on this corner in Georgetown in 1978, enjoying it so much that he took his “band-in-a-box” act everywhere from Old Town Alexandria to Nantucket before getting a marketing job and settling in the Baltimore suburbs.

Three years ago, he lost his job. He substitute teaches when the opportunity arises, and he plays on the Georgetown street corner most weekdays from 5 to 9 p.m., trying to make ends meet.

He hopes his music can provide a balm — if not for those passing by, then for himself.

“I love making music. When you’ve been doing it as long as I have, it’s like breathing,” said Hassay, who says he learned to play during the Eisenhower administration. “But . . . the thing is, I don’t have a steady job. If I did, then I wouldn’t be doing this.”

He sighed.

He’s a balding man who lives in a home in Owings Mills and wears an orange shirt saying “Help the Homeless.” He prefers his anonymity, and he’ll fuss if you ask his age or how much money he makes.

A brawny man with forearms the size of ham hocks approaches as Hassay finishes a song.

“Hey man,” he asks in a booming baritone. “Is that Paramore’s ‘Decode?’ ”

“Yeah, it is,” Hassay responds. The tune was popularized by a “Twilight.” movie.

“I love that song,” the listener says before dropping a dollar into the plastic jug.

When you work on the street, you never know who might be listening. In 1978, days into his first tour on the streets, Hassay ran into Stéphane Grappelli, the great jazz violinist. Grappelli nodded and gave him a nickel.

“I figured the worst has already happened; [Grappelli] saw me playing on the street,’’ Hassay said. So he continued on. The New York Times mentioned him when he was playing in Nantucket.

He played in Old Town until the cops kicked him out. When police pestered him in Georgetown, the ACLU backed him up.

On this evening, Hassay launches into songs from “Phantom of the Opera.” During the romantic “All I Ask of You,” a yellow Malibu cuts off a Honda Accord, setting off a cacophony of car horns. The melancholic “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” gets drowned out by an ambulance and three blaring police sirens.

He performs the musical’s dynamic titular tune, swaying to the beat, as a woman stops by with a fistful of change. The coins clink when they hit the bottom of the tip jar as the music ends.

Street applause.

The sky grows purple. Businesspeople give way to college students and dates.

The violinist plays on. He is midway through Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” when a man walking along Wisconsin Avenue stops and stares. He is balding with white hair, a billowy blue oxford shirt, brown khakis and boat shoes.

“Wow, that was really wonderful!” he exclaims. “I’ve never seen something like this, a man playing in a street with recorded music backing him up.”

The man asks the violinist whether he has been recorded before. He said he’s working on a documentary about urbanism in Philadelphia.

“I’ve been looking for a street violinist to provide some background music. Is that something you’re interested in?”

He asks for another song. Hassay beams.

He places sheet music on the stand. He turns up his iPod. He puffs his chest and starts to play the theme from “Titanic.”

A job interview, right there on the street.

samuelsr@washpost.com

Reporter Robert Samuels weekly series in which he explores the District, street corner by street corner.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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