Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boulder 2

Although you have come to predict certain aspects of the busk, it will be different each time—like  weather. And by the way, weather is everything.

You need to wear sunscreen. Even if it is cold. Even if you are going to stand in the shade. The sun is unrelenting here. Respect it.

You will think you are too late for the lunch hour, but think again. Some of these people are just leaving their offices at 12:45 for a business lunch. And although they are not as generous as tourist families, they hear you, so sing out.

Kids will stop, or they will try to wrench their parents’ arms in your direction. It happened to Joshua Bell, and it will happen to you. The kids seem to hear the music differently, and they are not yet jaded. They may think you are a freak, but they do not think you are a beggar. All they know is, you are making music outside. Two of them will convince their parents to give them a few coins that are ultimately destined for your case. They approach during Fear of Trains and you hope the timing is just right so they do not have to hear you say “KKK.” They don’t, but they and their parents linger and then try to dance. It may be the first time they have heard a Stephin Merritt song. They do not know that his songs are not for dancing.

A young man calling himself Calem will come forward and tell you he is about to start on the piano a block away, and that he is afraid he will drown you out. It is nice of him to warn you, and you engage in polite conversation, leaning heavily on what you assume to be a shared busker code or context. He is a fantastic player, and you do end up moving around the tree to stand near Hip Consignment, but Calem still has a lot of set-up to do by the time your voice is waning. (Among other things, he has to go retrieve his piano bench from an adjacent business where he stores it.)

Sheila from the consignment shop invites you to play right in front of her store. You will serenade her with an original song because she is a businesswoman and she understands the notion that You Are What You Repeat. She compliments your voice, which is enough to refresh it for another thirty minutes.

A group of young guys are eating on the steps nearby and they want to know your story. You say just enough but are leery of them. They request an Eagles song. (You will consider learning one for just such an occasion, but note that that would be very unDude.) You give them Dylan instead, and passers-by will drop a few more dollars in your case. The guys, also, will give the change from their Qdoba lunch, and you’re in business. This will give you the courage to play another original, and several more dollars will end up at your feet as you rock your way through General Things.

By this time your bag will be in the sun, so think about putting less jelly on your sandwich next time. On second thought, skip the jelly. Peanut butter has protein.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Denver 3

A spinach and black bean omelet is the breakfast of champion buskers. After that eat a whole grapefruit so your vocal chords are hydrated but your bladder will not be full. You will need water later, and plenty of it. The wind will be whipping, and your spirits will be down from the jackhammer construction at Union Station that is upstaging you. Consider moving down the block. Again. Farther this time.

It is slow, even though it is Friday and you made a point of coming even later into the lunch hour. It’s a chilly day and the lack of response is both caused by and causing your lackluster performance. Sing for someone else, someone who is not here. Sing to the wall across the street whose edifice you will have memorized by the end of the summer.

At some point, a guy coming out of the bookstore will throw you a buck, so keep singing and just be patient. He also makes eye contact, which is worth twice as much. You accept once again that Friend of the Devil is a more lucrative song than Another Mystery. So be it.

The field trip is here. Are there weekly school trips to downtown Denver from the suburbs, or are these the same kids from last month? They are here to learn about historic Wynkoop Street, but probably not its famous brewery. This group gets to go into the bookstore with their leader. Maybe they are from out of town.

On their way out, two different kids will throw fives in your case as they and their classmates are arranging their Velcro wallets and bags of new books. You will hesitate, almost screw up the second verse of Fear of Trains, but by the time you get your wits about you and think you should say something (…to them? To the teacher? How far down 16th are they now?) , it is too late. You are ten dollars richer but you feel the guilt. Those kids did not know they were throwing fives.

Or they did, but you still should have returned them.

It’s too late. “She could have been the belle of the Ponderosa,” you sing, and you are officially making money off middle schoolers. They wanted to support the local arts movement, you rationalize. And they did. You will keep singing, and never forget them.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Denver 2

Today, break your previous record. Sing 20 songs instead of 15. Earn more money. Endure the sun a moment longer. Skin cancer with busking experience trumps skin cancer without. (You have to die of something, and you may as well die happy.) Forget about the timed transfer on your light rail ticket. You’ve already missed it.

You may think that Mondays are just not good for busking. After all, the last time you were here was a Friday and there seemed to be more passers-by. There is, in fact, just as much foot traffic on a Monday at this corner. However, you are 30 minutes too early. By the time you play The Swimming Song, you have used a lot of your energy, but people from offices are just now making their way past the book store to Noodles & Co. Be in their path.

Placement is everything. You want to be near a busy intersection but not at the corner. Give people coming from either direction a chance to hear you and decide if they want to bother to wonder whether they are carrying any small bills. They do this between Wynkoop and the second set of benches on 16th, heading East toward the entrance to the ped mall.

Some of them have never seen a lady busker at the bookstore before, much less one in a cowboy hat and boots. Some of them will laugh or smile and you may have a moment between Teenagers Kick Our Butts and the Sons and Daughters/When You’re Old and Lonely mash-up to ask yourself whether they think you are courageous  and charming or just ridiculous. Sing with such joy that it is hard for them to tell the difference.

An odd man will stand directly in front of you during Sweet Sweet Smile and you will try to make your sunglasses-clad face conjure the look of distant love so that this guy releases himself from the notion that you are singing to him specifically. You prepare for the worst, and are glad when he walks away. Later when you see him on the bench across the street, be glad to realize that your voice cannot possible carry that far, although you will then know that he is just watching, and not listening at all. He will rifle through the trash can over there and find a discarded smoothie cup—half-full—and  you are glad for him, but you focus your attention on making a real F chord on Rox in the Box. You already know the MagFields songs don’t go over so well in this state, but Colin Meloy is from Montana, so maybe another Decemberists tune will catch the attention of one of those hipsters exiting the bookstore. Perhaps the one who entered while you were singing an original, his expression seeming to say, “What else you got?”

After two more songs, the man across the street will not bother you so much anymore. There is a woman on the adjacent bench reading and, in your paranoid daymares, she could be a witness. She crosses and approaches. “I don’t have any cash,” she says, “But you have a beautiful voice. Will you be here tomorrow?”  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Boulder 1

Appreciate that you are in a busker’s paradise. Arts appreciation + pedestrian mall + disposable cash = Boulder, Colorado. Find free parking even though paid lots are ample. It is a beautiful day so you will not mind walking to your chosen spot.

Walk the length of the ped mall. You will pass many buskers, but they are not all musicians. Some of them are mimes and contortionists. The musicians are not all guitarists, either. There are mando players and banjoists and there is even a piano on the block between 13th and 14th where students from the College of Music play concertos. Put a buck in the hat as you pass.

Keep a distance from the others, especially the musicians. Observe busking etiquette. If you see an old man leaning on a brick planter with his guitar case, ask him if he is going to play there before you set up a few feet away.

Be aware of lunch-goers. They are your prime customers, but you are so close to the patio seating for Kasa Japanese Grill & Bar that you do not want to ruin anyone’s lunch or get reprimanded by the sushi chef. Center your case between Kasa and Illegal Pete’s, facing directly down Pearl Street. The traffic picks up again here at the end of the ped mall, especially on the cross street, but you are in a prime spot.

Also, there are not many female buskers in Boulder, if any.

You will learn here that the Magnetic Fields do not have a huge following in Colorado. And you will accept that your one Dylan song and your one Grateful Dead tune are the ones that garner the most attention and the most cash. Still, you want to fill an hour before your sore fingers, dry and cracking from the wind at 5328 feet elevation, give out and you start packing up. In the meantime, sing your heart out.

You may be approached by a strange woman. She is steadying herself on the bricks just inches away from your water bottle, digging in her purse. She is either looking for money or just oblivious to personal space boundaries. Give her the benefit of the doubt.

When you finish your current song, she will ask for your card and say she needs a non-professional singer to play a role in the movie she is making of her life. She will call herself Quantum Cow and you will be glad you are not a professional.

Smile. Find any scrap you have to write down your email address for her and graciously accept the one dollar she says is all she has. It will be more than enough to get you started on All the Umbrellas in London, and while you are singing that, although the opportunity to play a busker in a film is worth more than a hundred gold coins in your case, you will be pleasantly surprised to see a man approach and delicately place two folded bills securely under the rock at your feet.