Under a darkening sky, Dean Vazquez played his heart out.
Eyes shut, sweat beading on his nose, the young man hunched over his saxophone near the corner of 7th Street and Broadway and blew a volley of bluesy eighth notes into the evening air.
But the shoppers and storekeepers scurrying away from the Latino shopping district were a tough crowd to please.
A giggling girl with long brown hair turned to her friend and howled like a dog as she passed.
Two guys in heavy metal haircuts and T-shirts laughed and mimicked him.
Eyes tightly shut, Vazquez didn't seem to notice. He played on, his blues a stark counterpoint to the cacophony of the street.
Strangers tossed coins into his open case.
Vazquez, a 22-year-old from East Los Angeles, is one of a handful of street entertainers hustling for coins and bills on the streets downtown, far from the sideshow atmosphere of Venice or the college-town ambiance of Westwood, where performers such as him are more common.
Sidewalk Is Their Stage
A ventriloquist, a couple of sax players, a guitarist, a magician, men with talents and styles as diverse as their backgrounds, have chosen the downtown sidewalks as their stage.
While the competition among these street artists may not be as intense here, the city's core is still a tough house to play. Only the strong survive in the swirling economic arena as panhandlers, sidewalk hawkers, three-card monte and shell-game hustlers, as well as legitimate merchants, all try to separate shoppers from their money.
Vazquez, a three-day growth of beard on his face, said a good afternoon of sax playing can net him $50, which he uses to help his grandfather, with whom he lives, pay bills and buy food. While the money is important, Vazquez plays on the corner simply because he loves to perform.
"I lose myself in it," he said after a recent 20-minute set. "It's a lot like praying, meditating. It's free. The time passes and I don't notice. That's why my eyes are closed.
"I basically play what I feel. I think that's the basis of jazz," he said.
Vazquez, just completing an unpaid data processing internship at an East Los Angeles hospital, said his street career began when he was 17 and working a gig in Hollywood. Afterward, he took his horn outside and started playing.
"I was playing some upbeat jazz. And this couple were really getting into it. The guy gave me a couple of bucks and they started dancing in the street," he said. "It was a neat feeling."
Young lovers aren't the only ones who appreciate his music. Vazquez said he has received tips from people that he never expected to give.
"I know people living on the streets . . . people whose skins are changing color, their clothes are falling off their backs, and they'll give me money," he said. "It trips me out. That gives me hope for man. They agree with the music and that's the only way they can show their appreciation."
Appreciation was harder to come by one Sunday recently for Marvallier Gordon and M.C.
The lanky entertainer and his dummy weaved their way through the shoppers on Broadway near Clifton's Cafeteria as they tagged along behind adults with young children in tow.
The dummy, paint peeling from its nose, rapped: Como estas, amigo, muy bien? Cuantos ninos tiene, uno o cien? ("How are you, friend, very well? How many children do you have, one or a hundred?")
Some of the parents smiled, dug into their pockets without stopping and dropped a few coins into Gordon's palm.
Others simply kept walking. Gordon got angry and swore.
"I make $60 a day," he said. "But that ain't (much) for a street entertainer. I know a guy in New York making $500 a day. In street entertainment, if you're not making $100 to $200 a day, you're (messing) up."
Gordon says he used to make $200 a day at Venice Beach just for standing still. Very still. Dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo with tails, top hat and white gloves, the 23-year-old former Air Force brat posed statue-like atop a stack of milk crates for hours at a time.
That gig ended when police cited him for possession of marijuana and kicked him out of Venice, he said.
"I miss (those days), they were fuuuuun," he said. "Those were the good old days."
His life has tumbled a bit since then. Gone is the tuxedo, replaced by baggy brown corduroys and a navy blue sweat shirt with holes in it.
A rock cocaine habit that Gordon says costs him almost $300 a week has left him rail-thin and perpetually broke.
"Look at this arm, man, I lost a lot of weight," he said, holding out a spindly arm.
Helen Martin, a Christian missionary from Montreal and an acquaintance of Gordon's, said she has seen the ventriloquist looking worse and worse. "A few months ago, he was dressed very neatly."
Martin, 26, who plays the organ on the street as part of her ministry, said the street entertainers on Broadway "do it for survival. (And) they do it because they want to, too."
Gordon said he makes more money on the street than he would if he had a job.