Muffen’s in a loaf, but the cold doesn’t seem to bother her much. She can thank her red sweater. That and her black fur.
The kitty keeps her eyes on Talan Wilhelm, 35, who has become a bit of a downtown Spokane mainstay this holiday season. Referred to as the Pied Piper or the Guy with the Cat, for the past month Wilhelm has cycled through seasonal songs such as “Away in a Manger” and “Jingle Bells.”
“She’s very well trained, but she’s got me very well trained, too,” Wilhelm said of Muffen, 4. “I’m definitely not the star of the show.”
He sits under cover of the skywalk near Macy’s, and you’ve probably heard the notes of Wilhelm’s recorder before looking down and realizing that, yes, there’s a cat in a sweater accompanying the fipple flautist.
But they’re not the only buskers delivering yuletide joy this season. From the doors of River Park Square to the Liberty Building, musicians fight against the cold to play their instruments for walkers, shoppers and workers alike.
Outside the doors of Auntie’s Bookstore, Greg Pendleton played the brassy notes of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on his saxophone.
Pendleton wears all black, except for the bits of gray in hat, scarf and beard. Even in 40-degree weather, sweat builds on his brow as he hangs his own improvisational flourishes on the strong, recognizable melody, the version made famous by bebop great Dexter Gordon.
“Every once in a while, people will look at you funny, like a bug in the mayonnaise jar,” Pendleton said. “But that goes with the territory. It’s Christmas. There are some Scrooges and Grinches around.”
A disability has kept Pendleton, 58, from working but the cash he’s earned on the street has helped. Perhaps more importantly, holiday sidewalk horn-blowing brought Pendleton “out of retirement,” he said.
He played for years in rhythm and blues and jazz bands, like Too Slim and the Taildraggers. It’s evident that Pendleton knows what he’s doing and it’s obvious he loves his instrument, a 1956 Selmer, “handcrafted from Paris,” he said.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve played with bands on stage,” he said. “But I’ve always loved communicating with people via music.”
The same goes for Adam Lutz, 26, and Andrew Kunellis, 27, who “were going to practice anyway,” so they set up outside of River Park Square.
The young men can whip up a tune, and as Kunellis strummed his nylon string guitar and Lutz played his well-worn ukulele, a crowd built. They sang in harmony, and their voices were a bit raspy. Still, the music had its charm and matched their disheveled fashion and pierced lips.
“It’s Christmastime,” said Kunellis. “We thought we’d come down and make a few bucks. I came down here yesterday and it was a pretty cool vibe. There are a lot of street musicians and people have been nice.”
The two were playing their own compositions, and didn’t really know any holiday tunes. But Kunellis said they’d give “Santa Baby” a try.
A well-dressed man in a leather jacket threw a dollar into Kunellis’ open guitar case and smiled. Within no time, dollar bills began to blanket the black, velvety inside of the case.
Back at Macy’s, Wilhelm runs through the notes of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and Muffen silently continues to look on.
“I do OK this time of year,” he said of his income from playing. He and Muffen, whom he got as a kitten, were homeless and living in a tent in North Dakota not that long ago, but now they’re staying with his sister in Spokane while he saves money. He has CDs for sale aptly titled “Recorder Christmas,” and he said they played some of his songs on the radio recently, which was “pretty cool.”
People donate cat food “all the time,” which Pendleton appreciates, but he’d rather put some savings away. He’d like to buy an RV and move out of his sister’s house.
“It’s better than a tent,” he said.
He picked up “O Come All Ye Faithful” again. As his recorder’s soft notes receded, the bells of the Old National Bank building took up the tune, unknown to Wilhelm and only coincidental. The ringing, singing bells pealed throughout downtown, and were heard by all who would listen.
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