Not A Silent Night
By Susan Dietrich
In the spring of 1980, I began playing music in the Boston subways on a rickety old accordion my late ex-husband and I found in a junk shop. I wasn’t enthusiastic about spending $20 on it, more than a day’s average income, which I slowly dredged up by selling our artwork and panhandling for hours on end. We had been living a marginal existence for years as a result of our moral objection to the Vietnam war, and kept as low a profile as we could for fear of Joel being arrested and imprisoned for draft evasion.
Neither of us knew the first thing about playing accordion, but in true form, Joel was insistent and persuasive, and we ended up taking it home with us, only to have it sit in our music room untouched for the next year or so. But in desperation after our first baby was born and a second was on the way, I picked it up one afternoon and realized my piano background gave me good facility with the keyboard side — and I soon discovered the buttons were arranged in fifths. Reading them like Braille with my left hand, I was able to pick out some simple Irish tunes, well aware that Saint Patrick’s Day, Boston’s favorite holiday, was just around the corner.
The next day, over Joel’s objections (he feared someone would steal it out of my hands), I took the old junker down into Park Street Station and began learning as I earned – and earn I did, although the vast majority of commuters ignored me. Still, among the hundreds of oblivious passersby, a few would stop and give, to my amazement. After seven tedious years of peddling my pen-and-ink drawings and Joel’s poetry and color-Xerox collages on the street, suddenly people were approaching me with money in hand, without my having to ask! When I got home late that evening, Joel was as amazed as I was to count up $40 in change and dollar bills, more than double my previous daily take.
By summer, I traded up to a pearly white accordion with glittery gold keys that actually played in tune. That upgrade instantly brought in even better earnings. Encouraged by my blossoming foray into a street music career, I took the next step and bought a cheap Radio Shack headset mic and a tiny belt-pack amplifier so people could hear me sing over the rather loud instrument. The added vocals increased my income even more, not to mention my fun!
But around Thanksgiving time, disaster struck.
After a busy day playing underground on the Red Line to Cambridge, I knelt down to gather up the change and put my beautiful instrument in its case, when a wild and crazy drunk careened toward me like a spinning top, grabbed my accordion by the strap, and swung it around like a hammer thrower, letting it fly full force into the concrete wall across the train tracks. He proceeded to whirl away like a dervish, leaving me devastated there on my knees!
I made my way home, shattered accordion and shattered mind — shocked, horrified, and heartsick at the loss of my lifeline. The next day I felt no better...but Joel was somehow looking at the bright side.
“You still have your mic and amp,” he said. “Just go downtown and sing Christmas carols a cappella!”
“Oh yeah, sure!” I responded, rolling my eyes in horror. “I’ll look like a total idiot! I’d rather go out there stark naked than sing without an instrument!”
But Joel persisted, dragged me back to Radio Shack, and bought me a battery-powered reverb unit.
“You gotta try this! It’ll give your voice the depth and dimension your voice needs.”
I reluctantly tried it out in the kitchen when we got home, and to my surprise, my voice sounded nice, like it was coming from somewhere off in the distance. Still, I was terrified to sing in public without my precious accordion, but with no better idea as to how to support our growing family, I trudged downtown the next morning, picked a spot on a busy street corner in the financial district, and began singing “Silent Night” into the cold, grey air.
I couldn’t believe the response! Immediately, a middle-aged black woman smiled at me, blessed me, and put a dollar bill in my box. And every few minutes, another person gave me a tip and a smile, if not a compliment.
“That sounds so beautiful!”
“What a lovely voice you have!”
“This is the true Christmas spirit!”
Elated, I sent my voice soaring high among the cold, gray buildings, amazed at how it reverberated off the towering walls above while people scurried by in the cold, dismal weather, looking all around to find the source of the mysterious, haunting carols.
Day after day I sang a cappella, and even recited “The Night Before Christmas” between songs. On Christmas Eve, the gloomy sky opened up and rained over $200 into my tip box! With that money I bought the very first battery-operated electric piano ever seen in the U.S., a Casiotone MT-40, a toy by today’s standards, but highly sought after on eBay all these decades later.
Again, it was a learn-as-you-earn proposition, but from the get-go I was turning heads and earning unprecedented income. Joel was as thrilled as I was with my new-found popularity, and he began writing songs for me and choosing great rock songs for me to cover. He gave me one of his guitar pedals, a phase shifter, which gave the Casio a wafting, ethereal sound. He also adorned my equipment with tiny blinking lights and colored rhinestones, and ultimately crowned me with his very own highly treasured winged helmet: “a theatrical device,” he called it, in response to my vehement objections to wearing such an outrageously embarrassing thing on my head. But to my utter surprise, people loved it, and it quickly became my trademark.
I played from morning rush hour ‘til long after dark, day after day, week after week, month after month, often in the same spot and to the same people going and coming from work. I became a fixture in the Boston subway system and people took notice — not all favorably to be sure, but I eventually won over many doubters through my dogged determination alone. I also won over many who had previously considered me a pariah and a street urchin back when I was begging, and they happily told me so.
Slowly but surely, as my expertise and self-confidence grew, I began to develop a devoted fan base —Joel being the most enthusiastic of them all. He was constantly singing my praises to everyone he encountered, referring to me as a “street-level superstar.” Thus, The Space Lady - a former struggling but persistent busker - was born, and who, remarkably enough, now performs on stages around the world!