On a slow day, he might make $5 in eight or nine hours. On a good day, such as Bloomsday or the day of the Lilac Parade, it sometimes takes two hours to make $50. That’s where he said he stops.
He doesn’t want to be greedy, just make enough to cover his basic needs, which – in order – are: food for the cat, food for himself and coffee at Starbucks. In exchange for nickels, dimes and dollars, he also aims to put smiles on people’s faces, maybe lighten their steps, brighten their moods.
If his music doesn’t work, there’s Muffen.
The little black cat is the star of their sidewalk show.
“Usually it’s, ‘Oh, cute kitty!’ I’m sitting here, trying to play as beautiful of music as possible. But it’s usually about the cat.”
The man doesn’t really mind. Muffen captured his heart years ago.
They met on the street in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where he was busking. He got her for free out of the back of a van – someone was giving away a litter – and walked down the road with the 7-week-old kitten clinging to his shoulder.
They’ve been inseparable ever since.
They’ve also covered a lot of ground.
Since he adopted her in September 2010, the Cat Man and Muffen have busked on the streets of Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state – from Yakima and Wenatchee to Seattle and Spokane.
“We just do the best we can,” said Talan Wilhelm, who turns 36 this month.
He and Muffen have performed in downtown this go-around for the better part of two years.
Friday and Saturday nights, they set up in front of Irv’s on West Sprague Avenue. Weekday afternoons, they’re usually somewhere on West Main Avenue. In wintry weather, they often opt for the cover of the skywalk near Macy’s.
Wilhelm stands out among other Spokane street performers for two reasons: his instrument of choice – he plays the recorder, as opposed to, say, the guitar – and, of course, his companion, who’s quite comfortable on a leash and dons a red pet-size sweater when it’s cold.
Shoppers and pedestrians usually hear before they see the pair. Once they notice, the feline is usually the one to hold their attention – and often also garners a few scratches behind the ears.
“She enjoys coming out here, all the attention she gets,” Wilhelm said. “She’s a very good cat.”
She’s also, he said, “an excellent traveler.”
That’s a good thing because, as Wilhelm puts it, “I’ve never really understood the whole staying in one place for too long.”
He and Muffen, now 5, have been couch-surfing and camping since they became companions. Wilhem was on the road plenty before that, too. He would play his music or “fly a sign” to supplement his income at a series of short-lived jobs or, when those jobs dried up, as his sole means of support.
“I’ve never really been able to keep a job long,” Wilhelm said.
The shortest one – at a fast-paced restaurant in Florida, he said – lasted just half a shift. The longest – as a manager at a fast-food joint in Seattle, he said – lasted about two and half years.
“I just get bored. I get bored easily.”
Wilhem grew up in foster care in Utah and, in his early teens, ended up at the now-closed Colorado Boys Ranch, which provided mental health and other services to at-risk youths.
“I was hard to handle, totally extra-obstinate,” he said. “When I went there, I was kind of an angry kid. I was kind of a troublemaker. Now, I try to stay out of trouble as much as possible. As I’ve grown up I’ve kind of mellowed out.”
Wilhelm lived at the ranch for about three years in the early 1990s. It’s where he learned to play music. It’s also where he performed in public for the first time, during a Christmas concert in 1993 or 1994. He was 13 or 14. A teacher at the ranch had shown him how to play the recorder.
“I was ecstatic to learn some sort of musical instrument,” Wilhelm said. “It’s the best way I can express myself. I think people can feel what I play as I play it.”
Wilhelm enjoys all music genres, but country – à la Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn and Charlie Daniels – is probably his favorite. He doesn’t care for gangsta rap. “It’s not what I consider music; it’s what I consider noise and cussing.”
At 16, Wilhelm was transferred to a facility for troubled teens in Las Vegas, leaving rural life for a cityscape with more rules. He hated it.
“You weren’t allowed to roam,” he said. “It was an enclosed place. I couldn’t adjust to it. I didn’t adjust to it.”
He missed the wide open space, horses and music lessons at the ranch, and he ran away. He said he had managed to save enough money from a job at a hotel on the Strip to buy a plane ticket to Salt Lake City. While panhandling there, he said a man gave him a bus ticket to Seattle. He stayed in a youth shelter at first, later sleeping on the street or under a bridge in the University District and couch-surfing in the Bremerton area. He drifted from place to place, job to job – and into drugs and alcohol.
Wilhelm said he’s since given up drinking and drugging – and taken on a series of short-lived jobs punctuated by panhandling and playing music. There was a stint in Job Corps, a skills-based education program for young people through which Wilhem received culinary training. He’s also worked as a fast-food cook and manager, dishwasher, janitor, construction worker and truck driver.
Until he met Muffen, he was more of a dog person, and life seemed a bit more difficult.
“I have her now, and it’s happy. I’m happy.”
Banana nut muffin
Muffen earned her moniker shortly after Wilhelm adopted her.
“I was kinda hungry, and I had just made a bit of money,” he said, recalling how he placed the kitten on a chair next to a table where he had set a cup of coffee and snack. When he returned after stepping away for a moment he found that “she ate the entire banana nut muffin.”
She hasn’t eaten a muffin since, but the name stuck. Wilhelm spells it with an “e” instead of an “i,” he said, “just to be a bit different.”
Her care and feeding comes first. Ever since he adopted Muffen, Wilhelm said, “I’ve always been able to feed her first. I’ve always taken care of her, and I’ve always loved her.”
This isn’t their first tour through town. But this time, Wilhem is hoping to stay.
“I want to settle down here,” he said. “Eventually, I want to get my own place instead of living on the streets or staying at my sister’s.”
Wilhem likes the feel of this midsize city and the people – even though they haven’t always been kind to him. Last spring, when he had been camping near the Spokane River, he said he returned from busking to find his site a shambles and his money – about $60 in cash – missing. Also gone, he said: a camp stove, coffee pot, pocket knife and “all of my food. They only left a bag of oatmeal, which was open and spread all over my tent. They left a big hole in my tent, and the lock I had on there was missing. They cleaned me out. They even took my allergy pills.”
On the street, Wilhelm said, “I’ve had people tell me to go get a job. I’ve had people throw quarters at me.”
But, “I try to block those (events) out and go with the good. I’d rather concentrate on the positive than the negative. There’s no need to be negative in this world. We’re all going to the same place in the end.”
Rules to play by
Meantime, Wilhelm has been composing some of his own songs, improvising others and performing them all on the sidewalk. On a recent weekday afternoon – “I’m not a morning person” – Wilhelm set up shop at Main Avenue and Howard Street after a stop at the closest Starbucks.
“I’m a coffee-holic,” he explained.
Wilhelm ties up Muffen by the tree out front and sits where he can see her through the glass door of the coffee shop. Children and adults alike stop to pet the inky animal, putting a dollar or two into the tip bucket.
Twenty-ounce coffee cup in hand, Wilhelm makes his way to the nook near the stairs of the pedestrian overpass, which is dripping with rust-colored stains but offering protection from the wind. The corner is busy, and the baroque-sounding, birdsong-like notes from Wilhelm’s recorder compete with a cacophony from cars, construction and conversations of passers-by.
He plays by his own set of professional rules.
No. 1. “If somebody’s on a corner, you go at least one block away.”
No. 2. “Never set up where someone is panhandling.”
No. 3. Be respectful. “It’s always, ‘Thank you.’ Or a head nod when I’m in the middle of playing music. I always try to be as polite as possible when talking to people.”
No. 4. “Don’t ever take more than you need. Usually, the most I could use in a day is $50. I cut it off at $50 no matter how good the day is going. The only exceptions are Friday and Saturday nights, and that’s so I can save some money.”
Unless it’s a special event weekend, Wilhelm said, “There’s no real way to gauge (how much money he might make). It’s kind of one of those things that’s kind of always up in the air. It either happens or it doesn’t.”
Either way, “I’m grateful,” he said. “I don’t think I’d want to do anything else with my life – well, of course, go to Hawaii, like a vacation. But for work, or extra cash, yeah. I love it. Busking is an art form. I consider it almost a duty. I feel like I’m giving something back and not just taking away.”
Plus, Wilhelm said, “I really enjoy making other people happy.”
Music and Muffen make him happy.
“She and I have been through thick and thin together. I’m always not that far from her.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter