Cheered in Chicago, Day 1

The train to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited yielded a stunning sunset over the river – an early plunge into darkness, but a worthy one. I’d been planning to write and hone songs on the train but my plans were dashed in a number of ways. My entreaty to play in the dining car for my dinner (during dinner) got shot down since the traffic back and forth in that car for food and customers would be obstructed. Then I was told I couldn’t play my guitar in the cafe/lounge car by an ornery ticket master because it was “dangerous.” How, I’m not sure. Happily (but not changing the situation), the other members of the lounge car commisserated with me and tried to lobby the cafe car workers to let me play, saying they’d enjoyed the music “Whenever something’s nice they have to take it away from us, don’t they.”

I arrived in Chicago at around ten in the morning and spent much of the day relaxing and talking with Tamiko, who I hadn’t seen in many years. My hair’s longer than hers now. To my delight, she acquiesced to playing together in the subway. I’d decided not to purchase a CTA permit on the recommendation of some CTA workers I’d chatted up earlier – apparently the same rule applies in Chicago as it does most anywhere: if you’re good and not a hazard, no one’s going to bother you. She knew of a perfect place to try a pitch, in a beautiful tunnel tiled underground barrel vault linking the red and blue lines at the Jackson stop.

We started with a random jam, trying to get comfortable with the space and with each other musically – her sensibilities and interests in jazz, romantic “classical” music, world music, found music and noise trying to mesh with my distinctly poppier leanings. I found the first half hour or so very difficult. Playing with another person made me at once more comfortable and less. I felt more aware of the passersby while ignoring them. I felt happier and more energized but thereby more worried and more obligated to give that energy and positivity to the passersby. In that first hour I juggled the task of building up Tamiko’s energy and confidence while keeping some for the crowd and myself. It was rough. People respond to surety – they notice when they’re engaged directly – this is the mark of a good busker, as opposed to those who stare resolutely at their feet or blankly into space.

We eventually settled on playing songs I know and having her solo over as she pleased, starting with familiar songs she liked by Simon & Garfunkel. Funnily we sounded best on songs in hard-to-play-on-the-violin keys, like Liberta, which I play in G sharp minor. She said it freed her to stop thinking about the key and just play the notes. One man looked enraptured for the solo section of that song, despite no tip. We obviously had to play Ue Wo Muite Arukou – twice, even. Happily for Chicago, the racist experiment indicated no preference for foreign songs. Ironically, the converse was true for us, as we were rather scared by a group of young black guys acting intimidating and like they wanted to demonstrate their power as they passed us.

I knew right away from this pitch that Chicago would feel entirely different from the Northeast. Everyone was simply nicer. We received thumbs up from many of the passersby – attuned as they were to our nervousness and uncertainty, and instead of looking down on us for that, trying to build us up. I’d sum up the essential difference as New Yorkers wanting me to fail and Chicagoans wanting me to succeed. Wanting to be won over. Another odd contributor to Chicago being more lucrative is the dearth of talent. New York buskers (in past years but not so much recently) tend to be excellent as a rule. Washington Square Park, Central Park, the subways burst with talent. Chicago buskers, however, are in Tamiko’s words, “Homeless beggars with instruments.” In two words: they suck. At one point Tamiko thought we’d do better if we looked more destitute. I think our selling point was our talent however, and I will not do gimmicks. I’ll wear my H&M jacket and Express jeans and look immaculate, because that’s honesty.

Speaking of gimmicks, I demonstrated how I know what works when I had Tamiko play a solo that I encouraged be flashy – and suddenly the tips started coming, even though she refrained from broken chords or arpeggios or fast runs and relied mostly on a D drone double stop. I then sang Hallelujah and Falling Slowly, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and I’m Yours all to good tips. Now Milana asked me later about my antagonism towards playing flashy things or just the reliable songs if it’s truly for the people, as I profess. I explained to her that what I look to enact is a true connection, not a basal response to speed and volume. I think playing a song for someone who really listens that connects with them can change their day and then a small bit of their life, but not a standby they’ve heard so many times before on the street, and certainly not showing off.

Tamiko left for a recording session and I carried on a few more minutes. At some point here someone stole $2.00 from my case. Right afterwards a beggar passing by asks insistently for some money, and gets truly offended when the worry shows on my face that he might steal. I felt guilty for it, but realized how impossible the situation was. I decided to end the pitch on my new winning song: Leaving on a Jet Plane. A pair of punk kids loved it, apologizing for their lack of money as they told me how good it sounded.

I took a nice, long break in the Barnes & Noble directly above the station, reading some pulp fantasy while I waited for Tamiko’s rehearsal to finish. She called me hours later as she neared the end – neither of us had eaten anything since lunch and it was around nine in the evening then. As I sang my second pitch for the day I felt genuinely starved and slightly lightheaded – which somehow contributed to a beautiful session. I sang the songs that fit that out of sorts mood best, starting with Mad World, and these songs were perfect for the time and place. The crush of rush hour had died to a steady trickle. The air tasted nostalgic and mournful. Perhaps the passersby noticed my weakness as I got a surprising amount of gentle and encouraging “Keep it ups.” The acoustics were otherworldly down there, freed of the din of stomping feet.

Most of my tips came from people doubling back. Tamiko came by towards the end and filmed me quite tastefully during a lull in the traffic – an interesting feature of the tunnel is the flow of traffic coming in rushes rather than a more steady influx, what with 100% of the users emerging off a train at the same time. Perfectly, the last song I played I Will Follow You Into the Dark garnered a tip.

Earnings: $17.33, 2.1 hours
Song of the Day: Leaving on a Jet Plane – John Denver

One thought on “Cheered in Chicago, Day 1

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