We heard his drums on the Literary Walk in Central Park last week. They were strong and soulful, seducing attention in a city filled with noise and attention-seekers. He smiled as he played, even before we dropped a dollar in his bucket. I pointed to my camera, a universal sign between performers and photographers, and he nodded his approval. And then he stopped his playing and offered me a free CD in exchange for emailing him the photos. A conversation began and a story was shared.
Terry F Wicks used to be an engineer in St. Louis. Despite appearing successful, he says he was not “happy in his heart.” In 2007, with some encouragement from an unreliable economy, he headed to New York City to follow his passion.
His passion was music and he came to the city with plans to enroll in a musical school. He soon met other musicians who claimed enviable pasts working alongside the likes of Miles Davis and John Coletrane. These musical mentors advised him to put off school and learn first to play on the streets. “This is where you learn to play from the heart. To survive here you have to learn how to connect with people.”
And does he survive?
Terry says he earns between $900 and $1200 as a street performer on a good week in New York City, where he spends his summers playing in Central Park. A bad week, when the rain or heat keeps people inside, he might only make $400. Fortunately, Terry says he usually only pays about $150 per week in rent for rooms he finds on Craigslist. In addition to his days on the park’s paved paths, he also spends his nights playing clubs with other musicians. “My days start in the Park, but I never know where it will end up.”
Terry typically spends the summers in New York City, autumn in Las Vegas, and winter in Hawaii. When he’s not traveling or performing, he’s visiting family back in St. Louis, including his two sons, who he says he supports financially with his musician’s income. I asked him what his family thought of his lifestyle.
“At first they thought I was crazy, but now they see I’m happy and they’re happy for me. They see my stuff on YouTube and they’re proud of me. They ask me now where I’m traveling to next.”
Is it wise to take life advice from a man who makes his living on the street?
He certainly offered wise words to me and Devin as we listened to his story. He spoke of happiness and living from the heart. “You have to get to the point where you don’t care what others think of you,” he said, echoing a mantra I’ve heard over and over again from countless sources in the last few years, including reputable therapists. “People respect happiness.” Yes, Terry, I think they do.
(By the way, should you be so inclined to take advice from a street performer, Terry recommended the book It’s None of My Business What You Think of Me. While you’re shopping, checkout previous inspiration Jane Devin’s book Elephant Girl: A Human Story.)