Going Home Empty Handed

Going Home Empty Handed

It happens every time. I put out my case and pick up my drum and people walk by me as if I wasn’t even there. I can’t help thinking “this is going to be the time I go home with nothing.” It’s a traitorous thought, always lurking, ready to come out like a bus stop cigarette.

Busking is a hard subject in the School of Life and this is one of the lessons. I’m actually getting good at this one. I remind myself that I’m not really playing for tips, I’m playing to get good at what I do. If I go home with nothing, so be it. I fall into the song, and I keep track of what’s going on around me. Does the spot feel good? Am I getting smiles? Tips? Glares?  Are there other spots to be had? Ah, that’s the rub, especially after work. There are a lot of us, after all.

Busking can teach non-attachment if you let it. Really, how can I possibly go home empty handed? The more I play, the better I get. The more I put myself out there the less important the judgments of others on my presence as a busker become. It is becoming easier and easier to acknowledge the smiles, tips, and positive feedback and let the crap roll off my back. Since I’m beginning to know my material cold, I can pay more attention to what’s going on around me and less on remembering lyrics and getting the drumbeats right.

Trip planning continues. The tickets from San Francisco to the UK are bought. I’ll come into London and go straight up to Scotland. London to Inverness by train is under a hundred pounds and the bus to Skye takes three hours. The hostel in Inverness is around the corner from the train station and they say they welcome musicians. I can get from any train station in the UK to Ireland for under forty pounds, so Ireland from Scotland will be cheap. I may have to change train/bus/ferry multiple times, but that’s why I’m packing light. Adventures make you late for dinner, right?

Coming to a Transit Station Near You

Busking is in many ways the bottom rung on the performance ladder. I don’t say that as a disparagement of it or any musician who does it. It is a great teacher. You get instant feedback, and you learn to handle hecklers. You learn what works, and what doesn’t, and you grow a thicker skin. Busking can make you fearless if you let it.

All the world isn’t really a stage, but there are a lot of areas available if you really want to make a spectacle of yourself. Busking is a great way of finding out where they are, and more importantly, where your potential audience is. Spots that are always occupied are good bets, but that’s only the beginning. A willingness to try out any available spot and the ability to evaluate it quickly is also something that sharpens with practice.

The ability to pack up and leave quickly can also come in handy. Where is busking legal and where isn’t it? It isn’t always possible to find out, and a lot of spots depend on the tolerance of the people who control access. The other day all the spots in and around the Berkeley BART station were taken. Now that I’m attempting to play after work, spots are harder and harder to find. I ended up on the outer corner of the UC Berkeley campus. I chose that spot because there was a convenient tree to stand under, I could be next to the sidewalk, but not actually on it, and I had a light and crosswalk right there. The light cycle gave me a chance to play to a given crowd long enough to catch ears. I wasn’t making much, even so, and a cop car pulled up in the traffic circle, lights flashing. I finished the song and began packing up. The lights went off, then the cop made a U turn. Was he after me? I don’t know. I never had to find out. But maybe busking is illegal on campus. This blog post has an excellent examination of the problem. In my experience, when I ask in person, I often get told no. If I just play, and move on when I’m asked to, I get to make a lot more music. Maybe someday a hefty ticket or an arrest will change my mind, but for now, asking for forgiveness rather than permission seems to work well, at least in the Bay Area.

Most of all, I think busking is a way of taking back our ability to entertain each other. More and more, we walk around with headphones jammed in our ears, or sit in front of screens and let ourselves be told stories. We don’t tell stories of our own. There are “legitimate” entertainers, and there are consumers. We all used to sing, and we all used to tell each other stories.

Street entertainers are part of a very old tradition and classing us with panhandlers and street people says something about us. The fact that we have such unvalued classes as street people and panhandlers is a statement in itself. We all have worth, and we all have something to say. We also have a responsibility to treat our audience with respect, and to expect respect from the people who pass us by. You don’t have to say anything to me, you don’t have to give me money. You don’t have to listen to me. I don’t even care if you acknowledge my existence, truth be told. But to decide that there is a whole segment of the population that is invisible is a loss for all of us. That “crazy” person shouting on the streetcorner didn’t get there in a vacuum, after all. By enclosing acceptable appearance and behavior within defined lines, and doing nothing for those excluded, we all have a crack to fall through. We all can become “worthless” and we have less latitude for experimentation. We have less scope to create art.

When there is no town square and no communal fire, where do emerging performers get their start? Where do we hone our craft and build our repertoire? You get one song at most open mics. I can have as many as I want in a BART station. Which songs get me tipped? Which ones get a smile? Which ones, in the right venue, get people to sing along? I plan to keep finding out.

Busking Total From The Past

An inexplicable thing happened a few days ago. I popped open a TARDIS that as supposed to be filled with pennies and found quarters. it reminded me of how often we mistake gold for dross in life, as well as confused the crap out of me. Unexpected messages from the past can be like that.

We were robbed a couple of months ago. Both laptops, cameras, and every bit of cash in the house. Including all my busking money, present and past, and the price and then some of an iPod mini I will be buying for the trip–because the particular means of saving I used to accumulate that much money is something that never stops. I’m already halfway there, as a matter of fact.

Oddly enough, they didn’t get anything of real value. All they took was money. Our backup drives were both there untouched, so we didn’t even lose our data. I’m in the process of replacement. We were given an iMac and some nonfunctional laptops, and my partner is good at computer repair and upgrade, and so we have, if not the same functionality we did before, more than enough to get us through. Most of all, we know whom we can count on.

The glass is half full, and this odd TARDIS trick just confirms that. I made that money back on the streets of Northern Faire in Black Point Forest. How the Doctor got it to me, I may never know, but I don’t care. It put me over the top of $500 out of the busking bowl and that is good enough for now. I feel fine about counting it, even though it hit the bowl in the 1990s. If I’d known then what I know now I’d have long ago saved all that money for just this purpose.

It feels like it’s too late, but I know better than that. We can only start from where we are and “coulda shoulda woulda” is unproductive at best. I have no time to waste. This is why I’m carrying my drum to work with me at least one or two days a week now–no, strike that–every workday, starting next week. It’s not always possible to get a spot, 4:30 PM is a challenging time to say the least, but sometimes I get lucky. And every quarter counts!

So, busking total from the Past: $42.62. $478.38 to go!