Locals | Helen Stratford

Helen Stratford, East Village poet and street performerAndre Tartar

On a recent Monday afternoon, the sounds of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel lilt across Tompkins Square Park. Helen Stratford, 54, an East Village poet and composer, sits with her little white accordion and talks to The Local about the 10 years, and more, she has been performing on the streets.

Where do you perform?

At different points in the East Village — once, if not twice, a day. I like Tompkins Square because it’s near where I live. Sometimes I’ll play in front of St. Marks Church. It’s sort of whimsical.

I used to play in the subway — Astor Place, Eighth and Broadway — but I had to stop performing. Somebody walks by with their Whole Foods bag and their designer dog and their $400 pair of boots and they can’t even give me a quarter? It hurts my feelings.

Do you ever play for money anymore?

I do, I do. But nobody becomes an accordion player because it’s where the money is. If you want to make money, you write poetry. Poetry! That’s where the money’s at. Oh man!

How much can you make performing?

Let’s say I’m in SoHo. In an hour, depending on how open people are, I can either make $10 or $60.

How about in the East Village?

I haven’t put the box out in a while here.

Why the accordion?

I went to Prague not long after the [Berlin] Wall came down and there’s all these poor intellectuals sitting on park benches talking Marxism, capitalism, blah blah blah, and there’d always be the sound of the accordion in the distance. That’s something I identified with in terms of the East Village, because there was a time when the East Village wasn’t so chic. Also, I play the piano. You can’t take a Steinway with you.

What’s the story behind this particular accordion?

I definitely know where I got it. From Walter, God bless his soul, because anyone who plays the accordion in New York knows him. He has a store called the Main Squeeze, down at 19 Essex Street.

What’s been your best experience as a street performer?

Once, I was on Third Street [between C and D]. I didn’t have my accordion and a Hispanic fellow came up to me — he had the skullcap on, he was like sort of tough — and he just said, “Where’s your squeeze box?” And I said, “Oh, it’s upstairs, thanks.” And he said, “You know. If you don’t think anyone’s listening it doesn’t matter, because when you play all the angels come and surround you.” And it was like, “Whoa. Thank you.”