Manayunk: A Day with the Guitar Man

Conway never gave up on his passion for music.]

Most people might guess that the 55-year-old man strumming a guitar on a Manayunk bench had always wanted to be a famous guitarist. But few would probably suspect that he ended up becoming the vice president of a finance company in Philadelphia. That is, until July 2010, when he became the victim of a recession.

Bill Conway plays guitar on a Manayunk bench.

The man’s name is Bill Conway, and the first thing that went through his mind when he found out he was being laid off was “I just bought a SEPTA train pass for the month of August, and I don’t need it.”

But do not worry, Conway got a refund.

Conway’s outlook is not exactly optimistic. “Things are bad, and they’re going to get worse,” he said. But expecting the worst seems to have prepared him for catastrophe. It is a philosophy that has guided most of his actions, from choosing to reside at the highest point he could find when he lived in the flood-prone Pompton Lakes, N.J., to forgoing vacations and massive debts in case he found himself out of work.

“I’m not a firm believer of a debt-based society, so I had no debt prior to my unemployment,” Conway said.

So when the recession’s effects hit home, Conway was prepared – but not untouched. “You lose confidence, you know,” he said.

Things were just easier when he was younger, Conway noted. And it is not all because of the economy. After all, the late 1970s and early 1980s were turbulent periods as well. Rather, it is the costs of aging that make the difference this time: the price of health insurance and strapped employers that prefer younger workers.

Conway plays an old Gibson L-50.

In 1980, Conway took a year off to just play guitar and consider graduate school. Now, a year off is a year lost. “I don’t exactly think I’m going to go back to law school and start a law career at age 59,” he said.

Conway has no doubt that he will find a job eventually. The only question for him is which job that will be. “I’ve been offered a job at a car wash,” Conway said, though that is not exactly the type of job he has been seeking.

“Maybe I’ll start a business or something,” Conway said, “Maybe I’ll be wholesaling cars.”

Until then, Conway is taking advantage of the opportunity to play a little guitar. When he was working full time, he practiced guitar when he could, whether it was before work or on his lunch break. But now, the Havertown resident tries to get out to Manayunk several times a week to play a little music on his 1938 Gibson L-50.

The guitar itself has seen better days. It was worn, and was missing a chunk from when a former girlfriend threw it off a balcony. But a decade after its near-death experience, the guitar was still going strong.

Conway never gave up on his passion for music.

For Conway, the noted he plucked from the Gibson’s strings contrast sharply with the complex world around him. A former teacher at Immaculata College, Conway can talk about the intricacies of economic theory, but he far prefers the simplicity of music.

“A minor chord has a flatted third. These things don’t change, you know. They are what they are,” he said.

In his ideal world, Conway would be a famous guitarist, talking in interviews about his newest hit song, Where You Going, Where’ve You Been, Have You Been Drinking? But for now, Conway said he is content to know that he never gave up on the things that mattered to him. “Playing guitar on a Sunday afternoon in front of Village Spices for nothing, it’s been my favorite job,” he said.

Some dreams never die.

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