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Playing for dollars, smiles at O’Hare

Long before sunrise, Sharon Dawn Middleton gets out of bed to pile on layers of clothing for her commute to O’Hare Airport from her Northwest Side home.

Middleton, 74, catches a 5 a.m. bus, then the Blue Line L for her gig as a street musician on O’Hare’s ground floor. She would like to arrive earlier, but there is no earlier bus.

Bitter cold doesn’t deter her; she showed me a nifty vest she wears with battery-operated warmers, “a dandy thing to have” to combat subfreezing temperatures, she said.


In the airport, Middleton sets up a short camping stool, a small amplifier and storage cubes made of fabric in which generous travelers will drop a buck or two or maybe 20 if they appreciate the music she plays either on a stringed instrument called a psaltery or the flute-like recorder.

For three years Middleton has played at O’Hare, outside one of two main terminal doors not far the L station and the elevators for the main parking garage.

O’Hare doesn’t have many spots for street musicians, and this is one of a coveted few, Middleton said. They open on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I’m amazed there aren’t more players out here,” she said this week. “This time of year it’s pretty mobbed with everyone trying to get a spot.”

Folk songs are her thing, including some that go back about 500 years, but she squeezes in Christmas music for people like me, moved by her rendition of “The First Noel.”

Years ago, in the spot where I found Middleton, a street musician played “The Little Drummer Boy” on a saxophone, and it stopped me in my tracks. I put a couple of bucks in his case.

Middleton came across a few travelers who were far more giving the other day. She pulled out a $10 bill and two $20s from her storage cube along with a bunch of $1s after playing 2 ½ hours. It was a good day.