They Don't Serve My Kind.

When I was a kid, one of the most exciting things about playing in a band at an Italian feast was the food. We'd stroll through the crowds playing our songs, maybe make our way to a sausage or zeppole stand, and take requests. More often than not, a few bars of the Tarantella or the theme from The Godfather would get us some free food or wine. Many times, we'd be invited to our own table either in someone's yard, or a school auditorium, or under an outdoor tent. These days, that sort of treatment is rare, and a bottle of water or a cookie is the best we can hope for on the house.

I don't think any of us go to these gigs to beg for food. Most of the musicians have regular 9-to-5 jobs. Some are teachers who are off in the Summer; others are retired. We're pretty much all there for a little extra cash, and because we love to play music. The food and wine is simply icing. We're not looking for it and can certainly afford to pay; it's just nice when vendors or church workers offer food or drink. Just this week, my regular job gave some of us a bonus and a free breakfast in recognition for a major crisis we averted a few weeks ago. The company knows the value of showing gratitude when employees step up to a challenge, and it only encourages us to keep doing so. There's nothing worse than playing a gig where people put their hands over their ears, or at the other extreme complain because there's silence between songs. “MUSICA! MUSICA!” some shout, while brass musicians buzz our lips and catch our breath before the next number.

I played a feast upstate this past weekend at a church that had an amazing array of ethnic tents. There was Italian, Irish, Filipino, American, Chinese, and many more varieties of food. We got a half hour break after the initial procession, and the people running the feast had given us arm bands that would entitle us to eat for free. The longest line seemed to be for the Filipino tent, while the American tent with hamburgers and hot dogs seemed more reasonable. I stood on that line, while my dad waited on the beverage line. My line remained motionless, while his moved. After a few minutes, he appeared with a ginger ale and a bottle of water. “They charged me a dollar for each of these,” said the old man, “Said the wrist bands didn't count toward drinks.” It wasn't really a big deal; I would have paid too if asked. On the flip side, if I was working a drink tent on a hot day and an 80-year-old man who'd been playing music for us showed up, I'd probably offer him some water on the house. I wouldn't be obligated to do so; it'd just be a nice thing to do.

As time moved on, I noticed a few of the guys had cut the lines entirely, and were just rooting around behind the tents, mooching food. If our band leader, or one of the people who hired us waved me over, I might have gotten off the line. Instead I waited, and waited, and finally had to give up, because my break was almost over. When the band leader heard I hadn't gotten anything to eat, he insisted I accompany him back and cut ahead of the line. I didn't feel right doing that, and I didn't want to hold us up from resuming the music. I told him it was fine, but he insisted. Sheepishly, I followed him to make what I thought would be the simplest request, a single hot dog. We walked behind the tent, and he asked one of the ladies preparing the food, and she snapped at him. “Sir! Sir, I'm doing the best I can! You're going to get me in trouble! ENOUGH! This is it; no MORE after this.” He gestured back at me and explained that it wasn't more food for him, but for one of his players who had yet to eat. Reluctantly, she gave him a hot dog, which I took and quickly scurried away with, embarrassed. He caught up to me with a second one that I really didn't want after her outburst. She made me feel bad enough about taking the first one, even if her bosses had given us all those armbands for that express purpose.

I don't expect food or drink; I'm there as a worker like anyone else under those tents, and have no objection to paying. It's definitely a sign of changing times that people rarely offer, and I hate to be pushy. I made sure we played some music near that tent when we resumed, to show some gratitude. When we strolled past the tent with the Chinese food, some ladies came at us with trays of eggrolls, eager to feed us and having a completely different attitude than the hot dog lady. And when we retreated under another tent and continued playing as it started to rain, another one of the feast workers came by with a container of water and some paper cups. A little gesture of generosity goes a long way, differing from those irritated at the perception that the band is eating their profits. I don't think any of us has any sense of entitlement, and certainly not the expectations of being treated the way a band might have been treated 20-30 years ago. I don't seek appreciation; I just appreciate when we're appreciated.


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