Although armed with Emery's email and phone number, I still had a hard time tracking him down. In Seattle, with its tech industry boom and where normal is three devices connected to your person, instant contact is the norm. Tracking down Emery the old fashioned way was a welcome event for me: it required slowing down in Pike Place Market.
The market is city blocks of community and is often referred to as "the family". Here, a faster route to contact is a face to face connection. This is what Pike Place Market feels like for me, a peace that comes with organic connection. I had just met with Sandi Schmidt (crafts vendor) at Local Color when she spotted Emery on the corner.
“He’s comedy, you have to listen,” she noted, pointing to Emery. He was balancing one guitar on his chin, playing another, swinging a hula hoop around his waist and telling a joke—all while solving a Rubik's Cube.
"About 15 years ago,” Emery said, “I was outside here leaning on this pole, every day I’d come down and lean on this pole. One day this guy came by and said ‘hey man, why don’t you do something?’ So, you know..now I’m doing somethin’.”
It occurred to me at that moment that I still didn't know what Emery did at the market. But there he was, doing five things at once, and I stood there trying to wrap my brain around it.
Storytelling with a camera has put me in a lot of compromising situations, from almost getting kicked out of a bus station with twenty classical musicians, to being told by a secret service agent I may not approach the President or I will be shot, to accidentally snapping a shot of eight groomsmen in a peeing contest. So I just went for it and asked Emery while he was performing when I could talk to him. I figured that, this way, he couldn't easily escape. It worked, and I got an appointment for my interview.
Right when the rain came.
Emery continued, "the world record for solving a Rubik's Cube is 4.9 seconds, but that is not what I do.”
At that point the wind had picked up and swept away some cash from Emery’s guitar case. “That’s my girlfriend, Windy, she’s always running off with my money!”
Then the rain started, so we sat by the open door at Local Color. That’s something I really like about the place. With people quickly going in and out, there was no real need to shut the door.
“It’s not for the thin-skinned,” he said. He went on to explain: many people stop and enjoy his performance, and many just walk by. He said it can be a strange interaction at times. People sometimes want to give and sometimes they don’t or can’t, but they want to listen. If you feel self-conscious about another person’s actions, he explained, this gig will kill you. Emery recalled his first time performing on the street, he was so nervous no one could hear him. A janitor from the market came by and started shouting at him, “sing louder!” so he sang louder, “speed it up!” so he sped it up. He noted that’s what really got him going, and that started a 16 year career as a busker in the market. He and the janitor maintain a friendship still.
The first year he performed in the market, Emery was also in military school and a was full time youth pastor. It was too much to do all at once, so he had to choose a path. I asked him how he came about his decision. He said that to feel free, he needed to follow his heart, and he felt that there was something special to learn from this experience. He explained that there are moments when it all makes sense, moments when a connection is made and it touches someone's heart.
Emery didn’t leave his work ethic behind in military school: one year he performed over 250 days in a row. If you know Seattle, that means a lot of days in the rain and wind. Times are getting harder for Buskers in the market, as people are carrying less cash. When he started out, Emery was making a salary equivalent to a school teacher. But in the past few years, it was cut in half, and then cut in half again last year. Emery has been working the market for 16 years now, but recently fell on hard times when he had an abscessed tooth. As a performer, it really affects how much he can work or if he can work. He originally struggled with the idea of accepting help from the community., There are always so many people who need things around the market, he explained, and taking help meant someone else wasn’t getting it.
“We are a family” he said. And, encouraged by his family, he accepted the assistance and got back on his feet. Sharon Shaw had been passing the hat and still does to this day to help assist "family" in need. Emery was one of many who benefited from her dedication to the community.
Emery is often found on the corner by Local Color. If you stop by to see him, don't forget a little cash. If you’re lucky he might share with you his collection of business cards. I was lucky enough to walk away with a few.
Read more about Emery in “People of Pike Place Market” a collaboration with Seattle Weekly and Pike Place Market Foundation