[Hpn] SFGate: Edward Jackson fell in love with tap dancing, then hit the streets. A lively corner is his stage -- for now. He's determined to go far.
Tue, 20 Jul 2004 07:54 -0700
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Tuesday, July 20, 2004 (SF Chronicle)
Edward Jackson fell in love with tap dancing, then hit the streets. A lively corner is his stage -- for now. He's determined to go far.
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
The corner of Powell and Market streets, where tourists line up at the
cable car turnaround, is the closest thing San Francisco has to a human
laboratory. Junkies, panhandlers, chess players and street artists fight
for their space on the brick turf.
A long-haired Giants fan sells hot dogs and churros and pretzels. A well-
dressed gentleman sits on a fire hydrant, holding an elaborate sign
screaming of sin, fornication and homosexuality. And a coiled-tight,
lightweight tap dancer named Edward Jackson works his butt off for random
Tap-tap-tap-a-ratta-tap! Da-Bang-da-BANG-da-BANG! Jackson punishes the
plywood with his feet, coaxing barks and angry growls from the impact. His
jaw is locked, his forehead clenched in concentration. His shaved,
bullet-shaped head flings sweat in all directions.
Is this the hardest working man in San Francisco?
Jackson, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches and 140 pounds, works this corner nearly
every day of the year, barring rain, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. His stage
is a plywood square that he places over a grated manhole and cushions with
a blue plastic tarp -- ideal for maximum reverberation. He sets up his CD
player, his amp and speakers, and attaches alligator clamps to the car
battery that powers the system.
Ten feet away, a line of puzzled, curious tourists file by as they
approach the head of the cable car line. Jackson is working his taps to a
salsa number by Celia Cruz. He likes to mix it up, genre-wise and
tempo-wise, and the next tune is a John Coltrane/Duke Ellington duet that
inspires his feet to follow Coltrane's skittering, unruly sax.
"Dah-DOT, dah-DOT," Jackson intones, adding vocal percussion to the music.
A few tourists, mostly women, drop dollar bills into his tip basket. Many
days they'll ask him -- especially the ones from Europe -- "Why are you
out here instead of onstage?" Sales clerks from Macy's scurry by on their
lunch breaks, looking down to avoid eye contact. A homeless man, his skin,
beard and clothes soiled a uniform shade of charcoal, does a rickety,
standing- in-place response to the music.
Jackson, 37, has been working this corner since Thanksgiving of '98, when
he arrived on a Greyhound bus. He didn't know how to tap dance, never took
a lesson, but had this wild dream inspired by seeing the young tap master
Savion Glover ("Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk") on TV.
"I see this kid with dreadlocks," he remembers. "And it touched me so
much. I was like, 'Wow, that's really a beautiful art form.' Believe it or
not, I went out and got some two-tone black-and-white shoes -- cost me $80
-- put some taps on 'em, and started dancin' on my mother's hardwood
Reared in the projects of Detroit, Jackson is one of four children. His
mother never married his dad, who died from heroin, but she kept the
family together. Independent by nature, Jackson dropped out of high school
when his French teacher told his mom, "Edward is always going to be
"It did somethin' to me," he says, still smarting. "I was like, 'I'm done,
I'm through.' "
Over the years, Jackson tried everything from fast food to telemarketing
to waiting tables and construction. Once he'd landed in San Francisco with
his Savion Glover dream, he starting tap-dancing for change in the Powell
Street BART station. His work was crude, unpolished. "I was just like,
'Man, I wish I could run into someone who could help me.' " One day a
woman approached him, said her father was veteran tap dancer Al Robinson.
"I call him on the phone and I say, 'Yeah, I tap a little bit.' He said,
'OK, bring your shoes.' " Jackson, living in homeless shelter at the time,
went for a visit and ended up staying eight months in Robinson's Oakland
home. "And when he was like, fryin' chicken, he'd show me combinations and
things like that. Right in the kitchen. And whatever he was teachin' me, I
flipped it. I would make it my own."
Dada-dada-dada-bing! A-rat-tat-tat-a batta-rat-rat!
Jackson isn't the most graceful of tap dancers. He doesn't tease the floor
like a Gregory Hines, doesn't glide or float like a Charles "Honi" Coles.
No -- he challenges the floor, bangs and berates it until he sends up the
energy and tone he demands. He's prone to fast, angry riffs -- to doubling
the beat with rapid-fire taps. He's also big on rising to his toes, like a
ballerina en pointe: He'll hold that pose, maybe extend his arms and flex
his wrists like a bird caught in flight, and then collapse it with a
flurry of taps.
"What I do is not traditional at all," Jackson says over a plate of pasta
at an Ellis Street eatery. "I learn steps more than combinations, and then
I improvise on all the steps. I don't do set routines. It keeps my mind
working, and that way I don't get bored."
His muscular, funk-tap style caught the eye of Melinda Estey, a broadcast
producer with Young & Rubicam, who cast Jackson in the promotional trailer
for this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Filmed at
Justin Herman Plaza with the Ferry Building as a backdrop, Jackson is
shirtless, his head wrapped in a bandana. In the final cut, Jackson
performs a scissoring movement with his legs and the image of a Scottish
Highland dancer is superimposed over him -- as if to say that dance, like
film, bridges cultures.
"I was surprised by how versatile Edward is," Estey says. "He has
classical ballet moves in his repertoire, some Michael Jackson pop kind of
things. He's very interpretive."
Even before the film festival trailer, Jackson had his fans -- some who
appreciate his spunk and his talent, others who admire his physique. He's
a head turner with his shirt off: strong pectoral muscles, washboard abs
that seem sculpted from bronze, a body so cut and lean, he says, that his
body fat was measured at 6 percent.
"Eighty percent of my tips come from women," he says. "I gotta give my
shout out to them, my props to the ladies. Without them I don't think I
could've made it this far."
The combo of talent and torso attracted Jackson's girlfriend, Stanford
University undergrad Deborah Burke, 21. Jackson noticed her staring at
him, so he offered to walk her to the Caltrain depot at 4th and Townsend.
They've been seeing each other a year, but their romance is vexed: Burke's
parents are conservative, ultra-religious and recently wrote Jackson a
letter insisting he leave their daughter alone.
"We despise the fact that you have become the major distraction in her
life," Burke's mother wrote. "You are an older, streetwise man. ... (You
have) brainwashed a young, untested girl for your own gain." Jackson was
stunned, "deeply hurt" by the attack, but he and Burke continue to see
At Powell and Market, where Jackson frequently performs with his shirt
off, anything can happen. SFPD Officer Dien Ha, who works the Powell and
Market beat on his bicycle, remembers the day a tourist saw the half-naked
Jackson and went berserk. "He said, 'I want him removed now!' He thought
it was obscene."
The law's come down on him from time to time. Jackson was hawking T-
shirts at one time with his Spirit & Soul logo on it -- a silhouette of
him on his toes -- but the cops made him stop, even though he had a
vending license. They said he was taking business from the Gap.
You name it, Jackson's seen it. "I've been spit on by a homeless person,
who I think was mentally ill. People have come up to me and used the 'N'
word. " Then there's the envy of the panhandlers and hustlers who resent
the attention he draws: "A Street Sheet guy said to me one day, 'Oh, you
think you're all that, don't you?' I turned around and I looked at him and
he's like, 'Hey, you ain't all that and a large bag o' chips, either!'
"I said (calmly), 'OK,' went to the rest room, came back out and put a
dollar in his cup. He looked kinda stunned, like 'Why'd you do that?' I
said, 'Hey, I understand why you're frustrated.' Ever since then -- no
And then there are the sexual come-ons. There was the woman, Jackson
confides, who "showed me nude photos of herself and was like, 'Do you
think you can handle this?' " Another one who got so steamed up that she
lay flat on her back on Jackson's plywood stage, lifted her skirt and
revealed her lack of underwear.
Men also show their interest. "There was this older gentlemen. Balding on
top, a nice blazer. Tipped me, left his business card. I'm thinking, 'Good
networking.' I flip the card over and it says, 'I don't know if I'm
barking up the wrong tree, but cocktails later?' I laughed so hard! I
showed the card to all my friends and said, 'Looka this! I'm getting hit
on by women and men!' "
Jackson grins, a tad embarrassed, amused by the San Francisco-ness of his
experience. The day of the Gay Pride Parade, he adds, is a bonanza for
tips. At this point, his marketability and musculature are so
interdependent that Jackson's afraid to slack off on exercise. "People go,
'He's cut up like somebody took a razor blade!' So I gotta do these
push-ups now because if I'm not in shape they're gonna be like, 'Hey,
what's going on?' "
To that end, Jackson does 200 push-ups in the morning and 200 at night,
and 100 to 150 sit-ups twice a day. "It helps my focus; there's a lot of
distractions in San Francisco." He gets up early, doesn't drink or smoke,
doesn't go clubbing. When it comes to food, though, nothing's off limits:
"I gotta be truthful, I do. I be scarfin' down burgers when y'all ain't
looking. He-he-he-he! Cheese on it! Milk shakes and pizza. I can get away
Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Bidda-bam! Bidda-bam! Bidda-bam-bam-bam!
Jackson gets up from the table and walks down Powell Street, to the area
he calls "my spot." He's left his plywood stage here, his amps, speakers,
car battery and the hand cart he uses to carry them. He slips off his tap
shoes (he goes through a pair each month), laces up black combat boots
(but leaves them untied) and wheels his equipment down Market, past the
chess players and jewelry vendors, the fidgety crack dealers and the old
Filipino men in their baseball caps and placid stares.
"How ya doin'?" a street regular asks Jackson.
"I'm blessed," he says, in a way that suggests he doesn't fully believe it
but is determined to get there.
Home is two blocks away, on a grimy strip in the Tenderloin. Porn stores,
drug dealers, desperate souls. He lives in a transient hotel, a place so
inhospitable that he has to be buzzed in twice, once downstairs and once
on the second floor. The South Asian proprietors, protected by bars and
Plexiglas, demand to hold a visitor's driver's license as collateral.
"Kinda scary, huh?" Jackson offers. Food smells and the stink of stained
carpet and bad plumbing collide in the hallway. "Trust me, it gets a lot
better," he says, unlocking the door to his room. It's tiny, maybe 10 by
10. Nothing in here but a bed, a sink and a closet. Toilet and shower are
down the hall; the window, shaded by an Indian-print bedspread, looks out
to a filthy air shaft.
So much for the luster of show business. "This is my little spot," he
says. On the walls are a series of photos: Jackson dancing, Jackson posing
in his long shorts and tap shoes, Jackson cheek to cheek with his
The room is shabby, miserable -- no place for a man of Jackson's drive and
talent and eagerness to make good. "I look at it like me payin' my dues,
man. I won't be here forever, but I gotta work with it until I can move
Jackson has hopes for the DVD he produced, a short program with shots of
him dancing and talking about tap dance, but he doesn't have the money to
pick up all the copies he ordered. He talks about taking his act to
Europe, to Japan, says some Scandinavian tourists told him he'd rake it in
if he did.
"The first thing the tourists always ask me is, 'Why are you out here on
the street?' And I'm like, 'I don't know.' I'm doin' everything humanly
possible on my end. So I don't know why.' "
E-mail Edward Guthmann at firstname.lastname@example.org. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2004 SF Chronicle