Kevin borrowed Brent’s coat for the night, seeing as he came to the Northeast with just a polo, so I met him at half noon to retrieve it. The Park Plaza Hotel happens to be a block from the Public Garden. Naturally, I headed straight there afterwards. I arrived and began my pitch shortly after one. Despite it being a coldish (sub-fifty) day, the sun did wonders. I made sure to stand to the north end of the bridge, facing south – with a largely cloudless sky, I felt warm for most of the pitch. A few coin tips for my first songs made me think it’d be a good pitch.
Jerry, the accordion player from the previous day, arrived after two songs, waiting for Marie, the violinist. I felt rather awkward and nervous – I didn’t know if I was treading on his turf, or if he’d ask me to relinquish the pitch. He was quite kind when I asked and assured me he had no problem with me finishing the pitch, but I remained tense, nonetheless. He stayed in the shade across the narrow bridge with Marie, after she joined, and while the camaraderie gave me reassurance, I think the nervousness of a discerning audience (and I’m so meek I kept feeling bad about delaying their pitch) jarred me quite off my game. I received almost no tips.
Part of this was the day, too (10.19.10). I obstinately tried the songs I prefer, and perhaps my subconscious attitude of avoiding the popular, bouncy tunes rather than choosing the more pensive fare showed through. Whatever it was, every tack I tried failed. My foreign set failed completely, even though a surprising amount of chinese folks passed me during Ue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin. The cold really messed with my strings and I had to re-tune often.
As with the previous day, the beauty of the location – revealed in a different kind of glory with warm light accentuating the oranges and the azures, painting the greens lushly and sucking the coldness out of the grays – saved the pitch. I felt I could play there with no earnings at all and enjoy myself (and I was). People lounged by the dock and took photographs of me. Actually, this was to be a theme – photographs and no tips.
I finally embarked on a saccharine set and the tips instantly started.Here comes the sun, Mario Kart Love Song, I’m Yours, etc. Jerry and Marie chose that time to suggest playing with me. I haven’t decided if they sensed the pitch was warming up or if they were simply too cold from sitting in the shade, but either way the following songs were an absolute blast. They backed me up – in varying quality: Marie occasionally providing beautiful melodic backup and occasionally straying rather awry, Jerry generally following along flawlessly with the occasional flourish. The pitch was still relatively slow, however, until we played a stretch of happy songs. Just before we embarked on this segment, I noticed a jet trail writing in the sky and pointed it out to Marie – someone had written 3192 in large numerals in an arc just above the trees. Our audience (we had one at the time) looked as I pointed – maybe the indication that we’re human led to a sudden rush of tips.
A very Bostonian thirty-something man – square-jawed, broad-shouldered, cropped hair and all – sang along blissfully to Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I sang the song to him mostly and we sort of half-danced at each other. Later on during this happy set, we shared a moment of incredulous hilarity with a Nepalese man who’d stopped beside me to listen. A man in a three-piece business suit trundled slowly by, jingling a multitude of coins quite loudly in each pocket. He stopped immediately after he exited possible eye-contact, paused as if considering our worth, and then dropped us a dime. A dime! Right after we finished the song we had a good long laugh. For whatever reason, that song was greeted with a rush of businessmen jangling their coins – none of the others tipped (many sneered) so in a way, this snotty one was the nicest. Our Nepalese comrade told me about his children and a little of his life story (came over two years ago to join his son and daughter who now have children of their own), thanking us for the music and smiling nicely with yellowed teeth sticking every which way. He tipped us a few quarters, but the warmth he radiated was, to me, his real tip.
One man wanted to give us a twenty, but his wife angrily told him not to. We’d gathered quite the crowd by then and I felt very embarrassed by their public argument over our worth – and quite commodified/unappreciated. In honor of this feeling I led us in Mad World
My voice flagged after a while, so I followed them on their jigs, strumming away. A minor seemed to be the key of the day. I’d mentioned my affinity to the key and after that we just couldn’t escape it. I noticed I was easily the most engaged with the passersby. Jerry never smiled or looked out at them, Marie looked down and concentrated on her playing. She’d laugh every now and then at the way I’d interact with the little kids who passed, mirroring their motions, smiling at them – playing with them from afar. Most parents enjoyed their kids engagements – one kid kept turning back. One mother, however, rushed her daughter along as if we were dangerous. I hate those sort of judgments. Not long after, though, a mother gave her son a dollar for us and remarked, “I like the combination you have.” And not long after that, a couple gave each of their three children a dollar to give us in turn.
I remained with them mostly so I could meet up with Maria. I ran off to the bathroom once and left my guitar and tote bag with them, speaking my trust in action. When I returned we jammed quite succesfully off the chords of Hotel California and Horse With No Name. A large group of girls requested a photo (naturally from me) with us and they crowded about for it. One of the girls borrowed my guitar to pose in one, too. Maria arrived concurrently. She requested Fast Car after they departed, which slowed down our previous lively pace quite significantly – it’s really an impossible song to accompany with accordion and violin, so I felt a little bad. We went back to the jigs afterwards, and I started to get the hang of the style. Jerry’s rhythm varied quite a bit, so I adopted a strumming pattern that could compensate.
I tired of guitar and swapped instruments with Marie. Instantly the tips increased, from quarter tips to $2 tips – ample proof that appearances and cultural associations win out over actual sound. We started with slower tunes, the sort of thing I’m comfortable with when soloing on the violin. It felt natural and easy playing her violin – I didn’t adjust the bow tension and there wasn’t any transition time at all, like there usually is. Maybe all the guitar warmed me up? Usually that would make my finger spacing too wide but I was perfectly in tune. Odd and wonderful. When Jerry took up jigs and led I had issues following the logic – it took me a few minutes to adapt. Marie certainly outclassed me at those sorts of things. In the meantime she strummed bass notes on my guitar. We played a great impromptu rendition of Shenandoah and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.
Sometime during this time the Spaniard set up at other end of bridge, with an amp and his whole set up, but inoffensively, where the sound didn’t compete. At one point a man asked Jerry if he was Irish. Jerry took umbrage and declared himself Russian, turning the conversation negative – it turns out he’s tired of people asking him that. It made me think of my own annoyance at my Chinese-ness being the most apparent part of me on the streets. Later on a camera man (maybe the same one from the last night? I don’t remember his face) tipped us a dollar and proceeded to take shots of us from all angles. From the other side of the bridge, from afar, then right up in our faces and in the middle of the bridge, obstructing access to our case and generally distracting us. Jerry abused him quite hotly and scared him off.
A quick note (this is a crazy long post…) on positivity. I felt very odd and someone apologetic after these exchanges. As much as I bemoan people’s indifference or treatment of me as a statue, I remain positive during my pitch and forgive every passerby. I try to remember my mom’s adage that every person has their own reasons for seemingly unkind acts and I never take it personally (until the occasions add up to a certain level) – a bad day, a different culture, a different philosophy, a bad memory, a past experience… I’ve never chased photographers off thus, or those inquiring as to my ethnicity – I answer them frankly or smile at them. I firmly believe negativity only breeds more negativity and we’ve got more than enough of that around already, don’t we?
At the very end of the pitch Marie and I tired greatly but Jerry just kept going and going, even joshing with us a bit about getting tired despite our youth. This was a sensitive subject for Marie, whose tendonitis necessitates her breaks. I noticed our energy and moods plummeted with the last fading rays of the sun about of the horizon, and when the cold and wind set in at half four we became ornery and grumpy for the littlest reasons – Marie particularly angry at the passersby and wanting to punish them with depressing tunes, Jerry goading us into continuing with money as the sole object, and me feeling like I just wanted to get away from it all.
When we finally stopped a bit of tension erupted over the divvying of our earnings: $46 dollars in total. I’d put in $3.50 in seed change to start and wasn’t even quibbling about the few dollars I’d earned before they joined – so in my eyes I was being generous in only asking for that initial deposit back. In Jerry’s eyes I hadn’t made anything prior so we should divvy it up even – generous in his mind. Marie was in such a grumpy mood at that point she didn’t care and offered me $3 of her own share to settle the account. I sympathized with Jerry, who needed the money to pay his landlord, but in the end Marie lent him the difference he required and we patched our fragile relations up. As we started to walk off a girl pressed us one dollar and two coins, and we used this as an olive branch – Jerry and I offering it to one another before he took the coins and I the dollar.
We parted good friends, brought together in camaraderie by Jerry’s story of a true asshole of a busker, the infamous bridge troll who acted like he owned the pitch and re-tellings of the man in the three piece suit.
I.M. Pei was once my hero in elementary school.
I decided to walk to Karen’s flat a couple of T stops down, which turned into rather a longer adventure than I expected, especially as I had eleven dollars worth of quarters in my case to further increase the poundage of my already absurdly heavy case. My legs were owned when I arrived. We had a wonderful conversation over her home-made lasagna and some salad, though we never did get to the pumpkin ice cream. By the time I returned to Harvard for the night I was completely exhausted. Most importantly, I felt alive again.
Earnings: $15.75 + €1,00 + 1 CAD, 3 hours (about 1.5 singing)
Song of the Day: Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole