Meet: Busker David Puryear and his alto saxophone, "Miss Nasty."
Telltale signs: Puryear has 32 signs about love, ego, and humanity that he rotates daily and puts out when he plays.
Nearly every morning, David Puryear, 69, puts on a suit, a cap, and a pocket handkerchief, picks out two handwritten signs from his collection, and travels with Miss Nasty — his saxophone — to the corner of Fourth and Market Streets.
There, he and Miss Nasty talk with the city.
"You can try to make it talk, try to make it reach the soul, try to reach the ear," Puryear said of his saxophone. "And so, if it reaches the ear, then hopefully it will reach the heart, and it will reach the soul."
Miss Nasty draws people in with her smooth tones. Puryear's signs, with their musings about love, ego, and consciousness, spark conversations. The laminated signs — written on the back of brown-paper Trader Joe's bags — were created by Puryear's romantic partner.
"Love is who you are; ego is who you think you are," is Puryear's most-often-used sign out of the 32 in rotation. Others include: "We lie out of fear. Truth requires courage," and "A loss of ego is the next human evolution."
"I like when somebody walks by and four or five blocks later, the sign hits them and they come back," Puryear said. "The camaraderie that I get from being here and talking and exchanging ideas with people is truly a beautiful thing."
As he played in Old City on a recent Wednesday, Puryear stopped to high-five a group of kids, fist-bumped an unkempt man asking for money, and kissed a passing businesswoman on the cheek. He even got hugs from park rangers heading to Independence Hall and from Philadelphia Parking Authority workers checking meters.
In this corner of Philly, Puryear is much more than a busker. He's an ambassador of good vibes. He's a man who can quote Jimi Hendrix, Capt. Kirk, George Carlin, Marvin Gaye, and Tupac in one conversation. And he always manages to bring each conversation back around to one theme: Love.
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Raised in East Orange, N.J., Puryear moved to Philly 12 years ago and started playing at Penn's Landing, which is where he met his partner — a clinical psychologist who is 22 years his junior — when she dropped her business card in his case. The couple, who live in Fairmount, now have a 3-year-old son. Puryear also has two other sons, ages 47 and 42, from a prior relationship.
Puryear played around other parts of the city, including outside of Suburban Station, before he landed at Fourth and Market four years ago. At the time, a showboating flutist was busking there.
"I didn't like his antics… If you walked by, he'd impede you from going by," Puryear said. "You have people from all over the world, and those antics leave an impression."
Puryear feels he may have treated the flute player "unjustly" by challenging him for his spot, but he doesn't regret it. Other buskers have since challenged Puryear for the same spot. He remains unvanquished.
Puryear was first introduced to jazz while serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. When he got out, he tried traditional jobs like insurance sales and security work, but nothing stuck.
"I didn't find no satisfaction in none of that until I found Miss Nasty," he said, patting his sax.
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Puryear doesn't play songs and doesn't do requests. He performs freestyle and often uses his peripheral vision to play to the approaching audience. If there's a businessman speed-walking by, he might pick up the tempo. If there's someone looking inconsolable, he may slow it down.
"I have nothing against Ellington or Basie or Goodman or any of those guys, but they did their thing. I don't want to spend my time doing what they already did," he said. "The music is too big."
After four years, Puryear has become a part of Old City's landscape. Tour guides often point him out to travelers, and there are locals who take pictures with him every year in the same spot to mark the passage of time. And he takes pictures of them, too — of "the faces of the people I meet who bring me joy" — for his scrapbook.
"It's not about a monetary thing. It's about the love … Every day the creator gives me a chance to see this love," he said. "With my remaining days, I just want to be a force of good."