George Street saxophonist takes 'minuet' to share life story
In an hour, students donning paint-splattered jeans walked sprightly downtown despite lugging large portfolio bags. Harried-looking businessmen strode importantly down the gum-spotted sidewalk. A serious-faced deliveryman stared absentmindedly out the window of his white grocery van, waiting for the light to turn green. In the background, the theme from “The Pink Panther” played.
Some noticed the music, and others paid it no mind. But in that hour — and for around the next nine hours — “the George Street saxophonist” sat on his towel-draped wooden stool set up against a stretch of wall between Harvest Moon Brewery and Cafe and Chase Bank. His tanned, weathered fingers pressed the keys of his dilapidated tenor sax, and he played.
His name is John Sabin. And the 60-year-old sax, flute, clarinet and piccolo player and teacher occasionally looked off into the distance as his gravelly voice talked about previous careers and his family — his wife, Rosemarie, two children, Dana-Marie and John St. Rocco, and three dogs, Roxanne, Shadow and Fano.
The last 20-some years of his life, he said bluntly, were nothing short of hellish.
“One of my family members was molested — one of my children — by a family member, an immediate family member,” he said. “And that kind of started a downward spiral of our lives. We weren’t quite sure what happened exactly at first, and then we did know, and it basically ruined our lives. That was in 1991.”
In the same year, Sabin, a mobile caterer, sold his business, Mr. Delicious. He said he tried two different careers after that as a bookseller and cook, and neither worked out. And then the Sabins became homeless.
Sabin and his family still live in and out of homelessness. Every day, he plays with a black instrument case open on the ground at his feet, where worn Christian cards are propped up in one side of the case and a white mug collects donations from passerby. Just a small handful of $1 bills are crumpled inside it in by a late morning, but said he needs at least $50 daily to sleep in a motel for the night instead of the family car.
“There’s a lot of miracles that have happened, but there’s a lot of evil on us,” he said. “And that’s primarily a mainstay of the story: There’s an awful lot of evil being directed towards us. It has made me more spiritual as I am fighting it, and others are praying for me and my family.”
Despite the miracles — one of which involved nearly losing two of his dogs to a shelter by a thread — Sabin has more struggles other than living out of a motel.
His wife is sick, he said, and is unable to work. His dog, Shadow, has a tumor in his throat. And Shadow’s brother, Fano, has bad hips.
In the meantime, Sabin is looking for work, either to play or to teach, he said. But whether his saxophone is up for it is another question.
The neck of his sax is knotted with a mass of rubber bands. The mouthpiece is so eroded Sabin is unable to use pads, and instead places pieces of cardboard in his mouth until they grow soggy and need to be replaced with another piece of cardboard.
He knows his solutions for sustaining his sax are not orthodox.
“It’s a constant battle to keep it cranking,” he said.
It wasn’t like this years ago.
He used to be well known in New Jersey and recognized in Manhattan, he said.
He was a member of the greater New York City area musical union Local 802, performed in a couple shows on Broadway and went on the road with big names.
Then 1991 came, and he sold all of his good horns to keep his family out of homelessness.
“We sought to get above water a little bit, and then all of a sudden, smash, it’s been going on for 24-and-a-half-years,” he said.
Now at his post on George Street, Sabin loves how he spends his days, despite the sweltering hot days and less-than-stable salary.
“It’s all about New Brunswick and us at this time,” he said. “And we love it, we love the people. It seems that street music is the only thing I can stick with because it’s available every day. I don’t have to have a tuxedo or the equipment, all I need is the equipment I have here, my famous stool, and one saxophone, and that’ll do it.”