On Tuesday evening, Mike Graham, a tall and wiry 50-year-old, hopped off the bus with just his instrument in tow and walked over the red bricks to the corner of Ross Avenue and Market Street. He took the saxophone out and left the case propped against the picturesque streetlamp in front of the Palm Restaurant. After playing for two hours, he guessed he had collected $40.
The spot in front of the Palm is highly coveted among street vendors in the West End. Many nights, Graham must play down the block by the Spaghetti Warehouse. "It's politics," says Graham, who uses the money to pay rent on his South Dallas apartment. The flower man, as Graham calls him, is his biggest enemy. The flower man often calls the cops on Graham, as do some of the nearby restaurants. "I don't have no permit," Graham says. "The police run me out of here all the time. I got a ticket for vending without a permit."
He had the idea to play jazz on the street corner a couple of years ago. He also plays 17 other instruments. On Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, he plays piano for a nominal fee at his church on Malcolm X Boulevard and Eugene Street. Originally from California, he came to Dallas five years ago, for a short visit to think through some things and decided to stay.
A family with a young child comes out of the Palm, and Graham, who had been getting ready to pack up, quickly puts his sax to his lips and begins a jazzy rendition of "Over the Rainbow." The child approaches and leaves a tip. Soon afterward, another couple exits. As they wait for their car from the valet, the gentleman comes over, leaves money and says, "I enjoy your playing so much."
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Then an employee of the Mexican Restaurant RJ's across the street takes a break from his shift and jogs over, looking both ways before crossing, despite the emptiness of the street and leaves a dollar. "For them to come over, that shows you something," says Graham, insisting he has more fans than critics.
A heavy-set valet who had been hustling to retrieve cars for the Palm comes over to see why Graham is being photographed "I'm going to be in the paper!" Graham tells his buddy, "C'mon take a picture with me." But the valet is shy. Graham teases, "You can see he wants to."
It's been a good night, despite the bad weather earlier. With his saxophone hanging by a strap around his neck, Graham lifts his arms in the air and thanks God out loud for his fortune.
"It's like a paid rehearsal. I get my chops up. I just do it because I enjoy it."