Last night, I played my guitar on Front St. and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had. Being a street musician is called “busking”. It’s something I do every summer, here in Wilmington, NC. I usually make somewhere between $20 and $200, for about two to four hours of playing. This particular evening, I only made about fifty bucks, so it was not the money that made it a good night. Instead, it was the quilt of human experience that covered the evening, softening all the troubles that had brushed up against my world.
I only have one rule over which songs I’ll play. The rule is that either I can find my way into the headspace of the song… or I don’t play it. If I never again played Sweet Home Alabama, I could die a happy man. However, if it’s clear to me that knocking out a sincere version of it will make someone’s entire week, then I can get into that. I can play and sing that song that I’ve played hundreds of times before and do it right.
But if I’m not feeling it, I will offer a suggestion of something else. I’m pretty good at finding a song that will make everybody happy. Last night, I guess I was in a wide-open mood, because there were no songs that I refused to play; every song spoke to me, as if playing it for the first time.
I played Elvis’ “Dixie Medley” for a guy from Louisiana, who was missing his wife and thinking about his uncle, who was dying of cancer. He sat there enchanted, truly hearing every note, every word, although I played it quietly and sang softly. His eyes were transfixed at some indeterminate place in front of him. A few motorcycles roared by and sexy girls in short skirts swarmed the street. Yet, he was unmoved, nothing defied the spell.
When I was done, he stood up slowly, solemnly looked me in the eye and said “Dog, that was worth a fiver.” He dropped the wrinkled bill into my case and walked off, as man does when he has found the faith to wake up and face the light of the coming day.
A history teacher sat with me for a few songs, his new girlfriend close to his side, their hands interlocked in a way that made everyone around them feel less lonely, if only for a moment.
He piled ones into my little collection of currency, because I played Can’t You See by The Marshall Tucker Band. He smiled excitedly and repeatedly remarked how this experience, of being here at this time and listening to me play for them, had made his night. His praise transcended the superficial pandering of requisite manners. It was as if he were simply thanking himself, for having the good sense to stop and pay attention… this is a true compliment.
An old friend of mine came by and paid the twenty bucks that he had owed me for well over a year. He’s a good guy and I knew he’d square it up, eventually.
A pretty girl kissed me on the cheek and shined a very sweet smile on me, for the duration of Shooting Star and Rocky Raccoon.
There is an older gentleman that I had seen around town for years. He had a goiter growing out of the side of his neck, the size of a small melon. He was always quiet and wore a polite smile, a badge of quiet dignity. His humble face demonstrated to me, his will and willingness to continue under incredible duress and to do so with dignity. Yet, no matter how gallantly he tried, he could never fully conceal the pain of his daily embarrassment. The obvious sense of ostracized loneliness stood out, almost as boldy as the goiter itself.
But recently, he had it surgically removed. Now, it is completely gone and the scar is barely noticeable. He has been dressing more stylishly and he seems to be more active, animated and happy.
Tonight, he was in front of the coffee house, sitting on the bench, talking excitedly with some friends about this and that. A hundred passionate statements erupting from him, about as many different topics. Hidden beneath the veneer of useless current events, the central point, the crux of each declaration was “Look at me! For my name is Lazarus and I am yet alive!”.
Down the street, a dirty, disheveled, homeless man found a box of pizza that someone had accidentally dropped, face down on the pavement. They had abandoned it there, writing off the loss as collateral damage for an evening’s merriment. Now, one man’s garbage has been alchemically transmuted into another’s golden, cheesy gourmet. To a hungry man, even dirty food is delicious, when laid on the table next to a silver platter of starvation.
He looked up at me, completely absorbed in his banquet. He was holding three slices in one hand, all still connected at the crust. He waved his hand and the slices at me, as if they should not be separated, announcing loudly and joyfully, “Pizza!”. It was his proclamation of “Eureka! I found gold in them thar streets!”.
The way he was looking at me in ecstasy of devouring, you’d have thought that I had given the gift to him, personally. That kind of gratitude is too often in short supply. Most folks get queasy, merely contemplating the kind of grit and filth that must have been smashed into that pie, the dust and dirt, working their way into the depths of the marinara sauce, bits of tiny gravel, now wedged into the pepperoni. But nothing could possibly interfere with his relishing in that found meal.
Earlier today, I spoke with a beautiful young woman at the City Market, downtown. She was selling hats and pouches, hair bands and hand-carved flutes from Africa. Her eyes sparkled so much that I literally couldn’t tell what color they were. All I remember about her is dark hair and a breezy, summer spirit. It was not that I was attracted to her. I was not so much smitten, as I was confused or bedazzled, even. It was the feeling that people describe when being in close proximity to elves and fairies. It wasn’t that she was pretty but rather, I could not decide for myself whether or not she was real.
There were other bits of good news, peppered throughout the day. A dear friend got the really good job that he has been after for many months. Two of my casual acquaintances settled an old dispute and are talking again, with civility and respect.
Now, as I pack up and head back home, I can hear bits of music from the bars, wafting down every street. I couldn’t escape it, if I wanted to. The guys playing that music, many of them don’t know what a privilege it is, to have those indoor gigs that they so take for granted. It’s nice to be out of the sweltering heat and to be not immersed in that cold stream of callous jerks, flowing down the block, in both directions, simultaneously.
The drunken sharks, the pickpockets and con artists… these are not all that bad. They might even bring a bit of useful color to the canvas, here and there.
What I mind most are the soulless trolls, unburdened by imagination, the ones who consider street musicians to be less than human. Truth be told, they don’t actually have a real concept of humanity and are therefore incapable of considering anyone to be either human or inhuman. To them, there are only desperate mounds of insects, clawing their way through tunnels of boredom and frustration.
Unfortunately, so many people have been taught that street buskers are not real musicians, regardless of how good they are. Sadly, they never bother to question this odd notion. Often, even those who themselves play music for a living, don’t understand what a tremendous honor it is to play music for anyone, anywhere, for any reason. It is, to my way of thinking, a type of sacred act, like making love or teaching a child to play a game.
It is a religious experience to break the silence, a kind of reverent prayer, wrapped in devious blasphemy. The incredible wellsprings of pride which bubble up during these elated ceremonies, are matched only by the gut-wrenching humility which lurks below the high wire, waiting hungrily for the next mistake. You get to be a god and a buffoon, sometimes within the space of a single song.
It’s disappointing that so many players just don’t appreciate having the inside gig, being out of the weather and having electrical power for an amplifier and a sound guy to make it all balance out, just right. The simple pleasure of being able to walk 25 feet to a bathroom and not having to take your instrument with you or ask a friend to watch it for a few minutes. These little amenities can go quite a long way, indeed.
Of course, the flip side is, they will never see the spectacle that I witness, out here. They miss all the smiles and the warm recognition of the nice, friendly people passing by, the ones who are in the know, that wondrous zen cloud of appreciation for all art and those who birth it. To see the faces of those child gods, their bright souls, unobscured by harsh lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke and bursts of fractured anger, this is a per diem that is not offered by any indoor club I’ve ever played in.
To sit on a modest dairy crate and to sit there with happy people, who left their homes and found parking on a crowded Friday or Saturday night, downtown, just to come and sit with me, on an even more modest sidewalk and listen to my silly little songs. Their complete and utter refusal, to view this world as an unending bitterness, their saying of the courageous no, to an experience of loss and instead insisting upon the reception of a divine gift, this reveals them for the sublime creatures that they are.
Their failure to see life through a lens of never-ending pain, their excitement at the beginning of the songs they love to jump up and dance to, that iconic and prayerful silence that they give to certain tunes, the ones that help them to transcend the difficulties of the daily trudge… through these attitudes and through their willingness to give a simple dollar that should probably have been spent on bread, they pay a tribute to me that any king would be lucky to receive.
Moreover, they honor themselves. They do this through their unassuming reverence for the joy of the music itself, wherever it happens to pour out. They prove their own royalty, by knowing the secret signs and grips and steps, calling down angels and demons alike, upon an otherwise dull, eventless evening. These people, they create the music. I simply make stabbing motions toward the strings and howl in ways that might possibly cause someone to smile.
Those inside cats, they don’t have to grow, internally, like I do. They don’t have to continually face the assholes who snarl at you, “Get a job!”. They don’t have to stand alone, with iron eyes, against three guys, who are threatening to steal your tips, which essentially means they are threatening to steal your electric bill, your lunches for the week or your rent.
They don’t have to summon up the fortitude and courage to go on playing after someone throws a single coin at you. I’m not talking about when someone tosses a coin at you… but instead, when someone literally throws it at you.
Those are the angry people, the sad, broke, the desperate, the heartless, the heartbroken. Some have more money than sense and some have even more hatred than they have energy to express. They have given up altogether on brotherly love, dismissing it as a pipe dream. They traded it in, years ago, for a new pair of pants and a pack of whatever cigarettes are en vogue, these days. The saddest part is their believing that they got a really sweet deal on those pants.
I still see them, zombies wandering by the drove, hoping to steal someone else’s good time, having forgotten how to generate their own. I see them, every night that I come out here. Honestly, they do get me down, much more than I’d like to admit. I manage to stop it, before they drag me too far into their misery. I cut short that poisonous process by telling myself that it’s their loss. And truly, deep down, I am aware that this is no simple rationalization. I know in fact, that it is the gospel truth; I have seen the light.
I know the warm spaces in which the light dwells and the myriad good things which it illuminates, when the crowds are still, for even the briefest of moments. The eyes betray only a bit of that beautiful secret. The rest is scattered in places you’d probably not think to look. It’s hiding in between the near interactions of people who are completely unaware of one another. It’s under the cars and on the roofs. It’s in the fur of the stray dog and that’s why you pet him, to receive his blessing.
It’s in the handshakes and meals and the laughter and it’s even in the bitter, screamed jealousies of lovers who hurt in love for one another that they have temporarily gone insane. It is in the willing space, given for another to breathe and share, unimpeded by opinion. It is in the sarcasm of the drunks who, while meaning no harm, have become possessed by the trickster gods, their mercurial sarcasm shared loudly and terribly witty things, spewing from the mouths of young men and women who cannot say there own names at the moment, yet somehow manage in the moment to come off like professional standup comedians, saying things that are much funnier than they actually are.
Of course, I still see the police, running full speed to break up the brawls, brutal squabbles, fueled by liquor and fear. I hear the sirens roaring, reminding me that somewhere, something… is going very, very, wrong.
But tonight, I bought an egg roll for a total stranger and we swapped stories of working on construction sites, toiling in the hard noon sun, for an honest day’s wage. We talked about trying to work your way up in the world and about being at peace with that process.
Now, he’s a little less hungry and now, I have some much needed cash in my pocket. And I think that for now, at least for tonight, we are both… O.K.