On a cool summer morning outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse—the sun still hiding behind the 17-story building—Phillip Flakes leans on a black stool near where the sidewalk meets the street, his body somewhere between standing and sitting. A worn brown case rests in front of him holding a cut-up milk jug filled with cash.
It’s just after 9:30 and Flakes takes a moment to breathe before pursing his lips and lifting his silver cornet. He begins playing a song for a crowd of people coming and going outside the courthouse.
“I’m a musician—more commonly a street musician,” he says. “I play out here serenading all of the people that come and go here on a daily basis.”
At 77 years old, Flakes doesn’t have the look of a street musician. He’s wearing a white t-shirt, khaki pants and black shoes. Brown spotted sunglasses rest atop his tan ascot cap. But it’s the music that fills the streets that give people pause before continuing their day.
A woman dressed in a maroon blouse carrying a black purse slows her hurried walk to a nearby bus station when she hears him play.
A mother gives her young son a $1 bill to put in Flakes’ tip jar as they pass. Instead, the boy runs off with the cash.
Flakes laughs, “I run him away.”
A man in a black suit and red tie carrying a yellow notepad later approaches and places a tip inside his jug.
“Thank you very kindly,” Flakes says.
Flakes arrives each morning just before 8:30. He sets his black stool down, props up his brown case and places his plastic tip jar on top. Then as the clock strikes 8:30, he plays the Lord’s Prayer to begin the day.
It’s a tradition he carries on every weekday, weather permitting.
He began some 15 years ago when he noticed a lack of street musicians performing in his hometown Houston. So, he took it upon himself to change that. He began playing outside the old Harris County criminal courthouse, then moved when the new criminal courthouse opened on Franklin Street. When Hurricane Harvey hit and forced all criminal courts to the civil courthouse across the street, Flakes moved with them.
He’s done it for so long because he wants his music to create a sense of calmness outside the courthouse where people feel apprehensive about what might come inside.
“Here I am leveling the playing field: ‘Don’t worry about that too much. Focus over here and think about what you’re hearing here,’” he says. “So, it’s kind of soothing. It’s not going to be as bad as you think it is.”
People notice on the rare occasion he misses a day.
“Everybody says, ‘Where were you yesterday? Why didn’t you come to work,” Flakes says. He takes a moment … “I have to be accountable to the people.”
David Butler is a taxi driver who has watched the impact of Flakes’ music on people firsthand for years.
“I’ve seen where it has changed the whole demeanor of their lives,” Butler says. “He’ll forever be remembered because he’s touched so many lives on this corner.”
Flakes plays dozens of songs a day. He’s been playing so long he doesn’t need sheet music. He remembers every note from memory.
He appreciates the interaction with people, like a woman in a zebra-striped blouse who applauds his music as she walks past. “Thank you, kindly,” he says in between notes. Or the man in a blue shirt and jeans who pats Flakes’ shoulder as he walks by.
By 11:30, the sun begins to climb over the top of the courthouse and creep in on his stage. Flakes packs the cornet in its worn brown case, grabs his black stool and plastic tip jar and disappears into the crowd that he spent hours serenading.