Grocery Sax

Photo by Amy TheligMost nights by 9, the parking lot of the Albertsons on Campus Drive in Irvine is quiet—in fact, on weekday nights, most of Irvine is quiet—all that's left are the college kids packing their trunks full of groceries and beer. But some nights, Boucar Diouf, who is seeking a career in physics after a yearlong researching stint at UC Irvine, sets up behind the potted plant next to the entrance and starts playing a sleepy dirge: the intro to “Round Midnight,” volleying long notes through the night like water from a fire hose. Diouf pulls his sax away from his mouth to say something. “I am not a good saxophone player at all,” he says. “If I have to play in the spotlight, I cannot play one-fourth of what I know. I like feeling that I am playing.”

Diouf is a tall, athletic-looking guy, with a long goatee that points down from his chin to the neck of his sax. Besides his native Senegal, he has lived in Paris and Barcelona, so he's well-equipped for the thin guy with frizzy hair and a fragile Spanish accent who strolls up and butts into one of Diouf's jams.

“You play?” the Spaniard asks.

“Yeah,” Diouf answers in a thick Senegalese accent that's drizzled with his European influences.

The Spaniard has trouble with English, so Diouf switches to Spanish. They chat about jazz and flamenco. The Spaniard plays guitar; they exchange numbers.

“We play sometime,” the Spaniard says.

“I'll call you tomorrow,” Diouf confirms, shaking his new friend's hand.

Sometimes a shopper sticks around for a full tune. One, a cute girl wearing a mini skirt and brandishing a wide grin, stops by Diouf's hiding spot to listen. When he notices her, Diouf busts up, laughing into his mouthpiece instead of blowing. The sax squeaks.

A friend who's lived in this burg 20 years says he's seen Diouf, but never anyone like him—not in Irvine. “If you see a street musician in Irvine,” he says, “it's a musician hired by a shopping-center-management company to give shoppers the impression they're in the city, without all the danger. It's faux busking. It's fusking.”

Diouf insists he doesn't care about crowds. That's why he plays in front of Albertsons, where a crowd sometimes gathers. But most people just pass by, pushing their shopping carts. Some turn their heads, conceal smiles and linger a moment or two before passing through the sliding doors. When they emerge with a cart full of groceries, some nod, say “Thanks,” and drop a dollar into Diouf's sax bag.

“Did I mess up your vibe?” the girl asks.

Diouf backs away, holding up his hands. “I'll play more,” he says through nervous laughter. “I promise.”

A moment of silence passes.

“So you gonna play for me?” the girl asks, impatient.

Diouf hesitates.

The girl waits, eyebrows raised, arms akimbo.

“Okay,” Diouf nods, then launches into another ballad, aiming the black hole of his horn at the girl. His blue notes shoot over the girl's head and rain onto the parked cars again. He could put out a fire.

When Diouf ends on a low, drawn-out wail, the girl pulls out a dollar and drops it into his bag.

After the girl leaves, Diouf confesses, “As long as people like what I do, I do it for anybody who likes it.”

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