This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the street and homeless people she meets around the city.
I met Ron when I was riding my bike down Fifth Avenue, and I heard this fabulous trumpet playing from the corner. He told me that he usually doesn’t speak to the media, because they always get it wrong. I was extra fortunate, because not only did Ron speak to me, he also bought me lunch! He is a great musician and a true gentleman. Fifth and 38th Street is his regular spot, but he will also be playing at the Swing 46 club on 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in Manhattan on October 5.
Ron Michaels, 50something.
This is my stage name. I have two legal names. (He shows me his passport; yup, it’s true.)
Where are you from?
New Jersey. I feel like a New Yorker. I feel like it’s the best city in the world, and I been all over the world.
Why are you out here?
I get paid out here, that’s why I do it. I enjoy myself. Also, it’s getting harder to get by as a musician. I used to come out here for fun, but now I actually have to come out here to make money and make ends meet. That’s actually how bad the economy is.
They don’t want to pay musicians anymore. It’s hard to find a good big band. Come on, you’re telling me these clubs can’t afford to pay a band? It’s just money money money. I was at a meeting with a bunch of producers once and the guy asked, "How many of you know about music?" and not one guy raised their hand. All they care about is the bottom line.
We’re losing the art of music. I studied with Claude Gordon, the best teacher in the world. I went out to California in ’76 after I hurt my eye and he got me to play again…
What happened to your eye?
I was in a karate tournament in Okinawa and this Japanese guy fractured my cheekbone. He says at the beginning, “I don’t like round-eyes.” He was trying to scare me. I won by pure luck. When he came after me I stepped to the side and I used a big punch, twist your body and put everything into it. I broke his chest plate. I was just trying to break his arm. He fell like a sack of potatoes. The damage was done on my eye, they told me I’d never play trumpet again.
What were you doing in Okinawa?
Karate. I studied karate my whole life. I do that. It helps me keep in shape. That’s what made me go out to California and study. That’s where I learned to play right. Even my bad days are good.
How did you get interested in playing the trumpet?
I was 14, I played drums. My father says, “You want to hear a good musician? Harry James. Go see the greatest trumpet player in the world,” and my father doesn’t say anything good about anyone.
I went out with Jerry Pinter, a famous jazz sax player, I played with him, and the chief’s daughter, Jeff Prine, he’s an actor now. He was a funny dude. I’m playing Donald Rumsfield in a movie, I was on tour when I met the producer. I did ventriloquism, played trumpet and sang. When I have the dummy I can be funny. I can say things, I can say anything, I used to dance too.
Anyway, we were trying to get into the place in Plainsfield New Jersey to see Harry James and this guy says, “You can’t come in here.” I says, “Don’t worry, we don’t drink.” So he grabbed my arm and I says, “Get your hands off me! I’m gonna see the greatest trumpet player in the world!” He says, “You can’t go in there.” I says, “Give me the manager.” He says, “I am the manager.” I says, “Let me speak to the owner.’ He says, “I am the owner.” Harry James is behind the door the whole time laughing. He was coming out for a smoke and he says, “These kids are with me.”
He sat us down and gave us all the soda we could drink and chips and pretzels. He sat down with us and drank almost a whole pint of vodka or scotch and he got up and said, “Now I”m ready to play.” And he played. I could not believe this old man with false teeth could play… He’s playing all these songs and the guys on the break were slapping themselves on the face — oh man he’s killing us — he gets up after the break and takes the lead trumpet and them comes out and does a solo. I never saw anyone do that! No one is like Harry.
In 1972 I went into the Vietnam War. I joined because they offered me The School of Music. It was the best school I ever had. The Army treated me good. My mother and father had to sign for me, I was 17. They weren’t sure. I said, "You know this is what I want to do and they’re going to give me the school of music." I have my doctorate now. Anybody can do anything if they but their mind to it. First they have to believe in themselves.
Where did you go in Vietnam?
Wherever Bob Hope wouldn’t go.
What was it like?
We were there to do a job. Oh, man, it was rough. I’ll tell you a storyâ€¦ I was playing in California and stopped at John Wayne Airport. This beautiful Vietnamese woman comes up to me and kisses me on the cheek. "Now what did I do to deserve that?" I ask. And she says, "Don’t you remember me?" I couldn’t place her.
When I was in Vietnam I was sitting outside one day and there were these three kids, two sisters and a brother, and the boy was very sick. I procured some antibiotics for him and gave them a big bag of food I had. The two girls were dragging it down the street and I told them I don’t want them to get raped or anything, and she understood me. She was a very smart little girl.
This was that girl. "You saved us," she said. "I just did what we were supposed to do,” I told her. Now she’s a dentist. I don’t even know her name. You don’t know what you do in your life that connects to something good for so many people. That made everything worthwhile going there.
I still sleep with my eyes open, ever since Vietnam. If I hear something that’s not supposed to be I’ll wake up in a second.
I was always the guy that always looked out for people. My mother taught me not to be prejudiced. She always said, "If you really want to know if the man’s evil or good look in his eyes." I get in trouble because I care too much. That’s how I got hurt. What happened was I went to the park right by my house. I was going to practice playing the trumpet. I hear this kid crying. You don’t think about anything but trying to save the kid. It was my Army experience and karate. He was stuck up on the roof, he went up there to get something and I went up after him.
There’s days I can walk and some days I can’t. That’s why a lot of people out here don’t think I’m disabled. You get tired [dealing with the pain] with your mind. I’m amazed at what the mind can do. I’d make a lot more money at Times Square, but I don’t like to fight with the police there. They give you a ticket for everything in the world. I can play trumpet out there all day and they can’t do nothin’ about it. You have a constitutional right, that’s what makes New York City nice, the street musicians.
I really enjoy playing out here. People never ask you â€˜Play a polka! Play a polka!"