A big reason I fell off updating for a while was this day. I didn’t want to detail it until sufficient time passed for me to recover. I’d say it’s not for the faint of heart or family but you’ll read anyway so meh. It’s the reason I’ve named the city series as I have.
Tomek recommended I play at Tumski Most, the lover’s bridge, where many tourists go on sunny days. Unfortunately it was a wettish day on this day (8.17.10) also, but I went for it anyways. I thought things were going my way, even, when after singing Here Comes the Sun the light drizzle stopped and the sun came out. The passersby were thin but as Tomek implied mostly tourists – I got some euro and even met an Asian couple from Canada – the same couple I’d been seeing all over Wrocław as they were the only other Asians I saw during my time there.
I really liked this spot. It’s called the lover’s bridge for the multitude of locks secured to the grating with couples initials or names affixed. It’s beautifully situated between the old part of town and the central market square. There’s no natural amplification but with cars so rare and a quiet feel to the place my voice carried just fine, even in its banged up shape. And best of all, I could sing slow, romantic songs of all sorts and avoid the happy stuff. The Canadians remarked it was a good place.
I was followed to this pitch by four very young boys, of ages 10, 11, 11, and 12, who hung around the whole time. They kept me afloat. At the beginning they were very curious in me and stared and talked amongst themselves, gesturing towards me but unmaliciously. When they noticed the slowness of the pitch they took pity and dropped me some grosz. They darted back not long after and gave me a tram ticket stub. Then a straw with red streamers. Then a combination lock. When the sun came out my luck turned and I knew it would be a lucrative pitch, also – each person from one small tour group dropped me a few euro cents, and about every other passerby at least patted their pockets.
Now the thing about busking and why it’s the best way to see the world is that you really get a feel for a place. You stay in one place and really observe how people are in the place, and they reveal things by interacting with you that reveals things otherwise kept secret or buried. You put yourself out there and you see and hear and experience everything no other tourist would undergo – both surprising generosity and equally baffling spite. This day highlighted both.
It began with racism. Not long after my fortunes seemed to turn well a loud guy on a red bicycle trundled nearby and offered me some sneering sarcastic Polish words before leaning his bike against the opposite railing to watch. Then his friend arrived, on foot. Let me describe this friend. If you’ve seen Full Metal Jacket, this man looks exactly like Private Pyle – right before he went off. Heavyset, easily twice my weight (literally). Blue eyes with a stupid slavering expression reminiscent of a cows. Shaved head. A cruel grin with shiny teeth. Wearing a white wife beater, olive green shorts and sneakers too big for him – some approximation of basketball style completely undone by his lumbering way of moving.
This man loped slowly towards me with an expression of disgust on his face. I smiled at him – I figured he had a bad day and I thought I’d try and help. He stood directly before my case until I finished my song, saying nothing, expression now neutral. As I slid my capo to a different fret he looked into my case, eyeing my coins and then bent down slowly and deliberately, counted seven złotych and waited for me to stop moving before rising to look at me. I thought this time I could be a little more assertive than the previous time with that gypsy in Vienna but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I began with “Czy mowiscie po angielsko? (Do you speak English)”
“Do you need change?”
A mocking grin.
“Are you taking my money?”
He grins wider. “Yes. I am taking your money.”
“Why would you do something like that?”
“Because I am asshole. I am bastard. You know this word?”
“You don’t have to be an asshole to me.”
“Yes yes I do. You from Chinese? Japanese?”
“No I’m from America.”
“You take our money back to America yes?”
“No I use it to go the next place. I work very hard for this money, that’s all I made since I’ve been here. You can’t just take it!”
“To travel. Good you leave. You have too much the money so I take. I am teef.”
“I need it to eat, too. Why would you do this?”
“I am teef. I am asshole. I am (polish word). I not nice person. I am teef. You know this word?”
We then had a long discussion about “teef” which I’d never heard before and he used to insult my intelligence “You say you come from America and you never heard of teef? Your brain is much small.” Later night I’d discover he meant “thief.” Now here is where I got a little too frustrated and angry and told him I’m probably many orders of magnitude more intelligent. He seemed to have no intention of walking away without getting me riled up and unfortunately I was baited. I just got angrier and angrier and more incredulous as the interaction was drawn out. The four children stood at the other end looking scared and uncertain. His friend lingered by them with his bike and regarded us like his entertainment.
A man in gray came by then and tried to pacify the man, speaking to him in Polish to give me back my money. He spoke quickly and calmly and in a reasoning tone, sort of a “Don’t do this, man.” He was mostly ignored. The self described asshole even had the gall to comment to me, confidingly, “This man cannot even speak English.” right after my ally departed, but I think the irony was lost on him.
We’d become quite a scene – with me continually demanding more and more firmly for him to give me back my money and him repeating that he was (insert word for asshole here). When it became clear I was not going to fight him he started to walk off and his friend joined him, taking his bike. I waved angrily at him, still beseeching him, and he took this opportunity to turn around, as if affronted.
It was tense enough already but when he faced me again and walked over it felt unreal. I’ve never felt so alone or terrified. In a foreign country with only absolute basics for language (where most don’t speak English) and no phone or other way to communicate or seek assistance, where the police are not my friends. He strode slowly and menacingly towards me, widening his already immense bulk by holding his arms out from his side and his hands balled in fists. The children across the way started looked even more scared than I felt.
“Do you like yourself?”
I raised my hands to indicate that I’d stop beseeching him. It’s interesting the good that can come of these horrible things. Because I answered without hesitating “Well, yes.” and it was true. That was nice to know.
“Do you like your face?”
I’d been playing with my back to a brick wall just at the end of the bridge so as to give passersby a wider berth. I now regretted this choice. He was now quite near to me. I felt sort of empty and powerless. In the quiet I just prayed. People slowed and stared as they passed but didn’t stop.
“Your face must be punish.” A sneer. His friend laughs in delight and leans his bike against the opposite wall. “Your face must be punish.” And raised his fist. The very odd thing in this moment of inevitability I no longer felt at all scared – I had only an absurd worry that my guitar would get broken. It’s amazing how many thoughts can run through your head in a short time – I figured, hey, my body with heal but not my guitar. And my guitar was my income. I felt painfully aware of the kids nearby and kept praying, now for them, the thought going through my mind of what a bad example this asshole was.
This was when, out of nowhere, a bespectacled bicyclist wheeled in between us. He wore mostly gray – polo shirt, khaki pants, the look of a college student – and began speaking quickly in Polish and sometimes English to my aggressor. Though nearly as slight as me and just a little taller he spread his arms between us as he faced the larger man. I don’t know or remember what he said or exactly how long it was but somehow he convinced my would be attacker to leave me – at least a little while. I thanked him profusely as I absently strummed my guitar. He turned to leave on his bicycle and was at the other end of the bridge when the the two racists turned around with a little gleam in their eyes and taking up his “Your face must be punish” refrain again.
The children had now gathered around me, asking how much he took from me and asking if they could help me. They helped me gather my things and pack my guitar so I could walk away to the join bicyclist, who was beckoning me, worriedly to follow him. As I fell in step he explained he’d convinced the guy to depart for a little while but that I shouldn’t stay. “If you want to make money this way you should play in the center, Galeria Dominikanska, where there are more people – here there are a lot of racists. I am not a fighter and I don’t think you are, either.” “No. Not at all.” “It is good I stopped him but he may come back. Stay in the center. I am very sorry you have to see this kind of person here in Poland and I wish I can say he is the only one. These guys are just trying to show off. They have no job and they are just angry…”
He felt truly terrible I would have such an association with his country. Ashamed. He offered to take me to Galeria Dominikanska but I knew the way and the kids promised him they’d accompany me. Oh the kids. Szymon, Kuba, Filip, Lukasz. They talked with me the whole way – we basically talked about their ages and where they live. But the company – oh I might have shattered without them. They took me the whole way, waited till I was settled at a new pitch at the Galeria and then bid me farewell.
Now that exhausted me to write. So I’ll just jot a few notes from the other pitches of the day.
I started singing right away, worship songs and I got some small tips. It wasn’t really any better, however. I tried a racism experiment and sand “golden hits” for a while to no response and then singing my two asian songs to immediate tippage. One young guy said “I love you!” enthusiastically when he heard Ue Liang. A group of young boys wanted to borrow my guitar but my nerves were in no shape to put anything of mine in further danger.
During the interim I walked around (staying within the town center area) before gathering the courage to return to the bridge for a photo. The sky, as always, gave me comfort – no matter how shitty my day is or how good, the clouds and the blue make me feel safe and marvel at the beauty of this world – to stop thinking of my own problems. I went to Tomek’s favorite “bar” (restaurant) for some pierogi and I played with Zebra a little and had him interact with the gnomes.
In the evening I returned to the other tunnel and experienced equal frustration. A old lady begging on the steps with two dogs received more than me (excepting the tips from my second racism experiment, which had similar success). For whatever reason people in Poland are very keen on borrowing my guitar – one friendly beer drunk man borrowed it saying he hadn’t played for a long time and wanted to play one song. Then he kept it for a long long time, trying to prove himself after saying “This song will be popular just you see.” He sang horribly and I nearly had to wrest my guitar back. Exactly one song after he left a smelly seventeen year old girl borrowed my guitar, very briefly and then engaged me in conversation for a long while.
The two youngsters who’d claimed this other pitch the previous day returned and we had another amiable exchange where I promised to relinquish the pitch after one last song. They and the girl spoke great English and I latched on to them, speaking quickly about my perception of the racism – which they confirmed, the girl especially, who’d experienced it growing up as she’s half Moroccan (physically she doesn’t look different at all – but the knowledge her father is Moroccan was enough for her classmates and their parents.) They commiserated with me for the tip scarcity and I tipped them as I left as thanks.
On my return to Tomek’s flat he was home with two friends (one was Joana from before). I sang them an impassioned Falling Slowly on their request – their favorite song from their favorite movie and spent the rest of the evening on Tomek’s computer, escaping into anime, research about Schengen visas. When he returned we spoke long and shared music – he also felt horrible that I had this experience in his country – and by the time we called it a night around four AM I found it possible to sleep.
Earnings: 27.72 PLN + €0,90 + $0.01 + straw with streamers + combination lock + tram ticket, 2.2 hours
Song of the Day: House of God, Forever – Jon Foreman