I opened the day (11.12.10) early to cook a simple breakfast for Tamiko before she headed to work. I intended to try a pitch around 2.30, but the entire tunnel was filled with clashing sounds. The keyboard player she’d warned me about was plunking away with a single finger to insipid backing tracks right in the middle. He told me he’d finish around six and had been there since seven in the morning. A rude djembe player banged noisily almost directly across, not respecting busking etiquette by doing so. An elderly asian couple screeched painful, out-of-rhythm tunes on an erhu and accordion on the red line platform. A man using heavy reverb and slowly shifting backing tracks to hide his unfamiliar guitar plucking dominated the soundspace of the blue line platform. Something I’ve noticed about Chicago buskers is they’re universally terrible, which was quite the shock even after the decreased quality of New York buskers. (The New Yorkers have gone distinctly downhill since my first visit there six years ago, but they’re still tolerable, by and large, and often quite good.) I’d no obligations anywhere so I used the time to rendezvous with my younger brother Brent, in town for job interviews. Characteristically, the first thing I did upon meeting him at his absurdly fancy hotel was iron his shirt. Helpless kid. In the best of ways.
Another benefit of the Jackson station is the Barnes & Noble situated directly above, where I sat to read and refill my one 500ml water bottle – I had two from Jen after the Madison Square Park pitch but that morning I gave one to a beggar who passed through the train I took into town. When I finally began the pitch at six, I felt strangely nervous. I’d stayed up late the previous night generally baring my soul to Tamiko and the aftermath left me feeling predictably vulnerable throughout the day. In hindsight, I think some of the highs and lows from the days pitches owe to passersby reading that sensitivity in me, probably on a subconscious level – and reacting in caring gestures or “kick em when they’re down” actions.
I began with slow songs which suited the tunnel and my mood on the order of last night’s Hello. I know why I end up delving into the brighter fare for many of my pitches but ones like this one make me wonder and wish why I ever have to at all. I simply do best singing songs I love with emotions I feel – makes sense, right? I suppose I pulled into myself a bit for the first few songs – which had the benefit of improving my music (perhaps) with recognition of tips and supplication of passersby not entering my head. I honestly don’t recall any faces who passed in the beginning and after I came a bit back to myself I looked down to see a five dollar bill nestled happily among the fresh coins and singles sprinkled across my seed money. I vaguely remember a nice lady coming doubling back and telling me, earnest and shy, that she loved my voice as I was between two songs. I assume that must have been her generous donation. I hope I thanked her as earnestly. Not long after this a youngish broad black man asked me for my phone number and I instantly got protective – but it turned out he was a bassist in search of a guitarist/singer and just wanted to contact me later. I felt horrid for the reaction he must have read, for he placated me by explaining this hurriedly, complimenting my voice and asking for my myspace.
Because I was racially profiling. Throughout my short time busking in America I’ve been unnecessarily afraid of younger, more rambunctious black passersby. Take this day as an example for what these thoughts come from. Of the many people who passed me the groups of young black kids were always the most intentionally intimidating. I assume it’s an attempt to feel cool or dominant, not unlike that Polish man in Wroclaw, but whatever it is I receive quite an education in it on the streets. Which is one of the reasons I think busking is the greatest teacher I’ve ever had. The groups in the tunnel had this assumed thuggishness that I could literally see them donning as they neared. At either end of the tunnel they’d act as any group of young friends might but on seeing me the tough guises and the punchings of each others shoulders came on. Their voices deepened. They walked slower, stared me down. After they’d pass a sufficient distance they’d relax and look at each other to share a laugh about my reaction, perhaps.
Many would mock me with fake tips, often accompanied by “you want it?”. One, the straggler of a tamer group apparently stayed behind just to ask “Can I have a dollar?” I responded with “Sorry, man.” and a smile, which he turned into an incredulous gape when he rejoined, “Just kidding.” and slapped his friends on their shoulders, laughing maniacally. One group of three seemed very aware that at the time they were the only other people in the long tunnel. They muttered to each other in a not-so-convincing just audible set of voices about “beating him up” or “having some fun” eyeing me out of the corner of their actually gentle eyes – which gave their ruse away such that I felt no fear whatsoever, but was irked by their need to try and evoke it. Often, the first people off the trains and thus entering my tunnel were teenage black kids who’d decide race to the other end on seeing me, passing deliberately (or so I read) within inches of my case and shooting back “Na na na na na” looks like impetuous kids. These last interactions were the only that made me smile.
On the other end of the spectrum, this night I kept receiving heartfelt “You have a beautiful voice” comments from girls around my age, whose eyes spoke of their earnesty. One of these girls stopped for a long while to rifle through her purse, even though I was between songs. She denied my proffered request list in the kindest possible voice with “I just want to tip you” and a sweet smile. The song she tipped me after, Crazy also garnered me my second five dollar bill tip, from a young man who doubled back the entire tunnel to give it yet never met my eyes. An older Chinese woman broke from my learned expectations, too, and tipped me with a grateful sigh just before the girl, even hanging back to enjoy our interchange. Just-over-the-hill aged men gave their own version of that same encouragement with “Keep it up”s and “Don’t give up”s. My favorite from these came from a svelte black man in all black with a black business carryon who added afterwards: “I’m a producer, I know what I’m talking about. You keep doing what you’re doing.”
There are too many beautiful interactions to do justice in a blog post. Most followed directly on the heels of some slight or sneer. After a set of workers scoffed at my bending over to get a drink of water (which they likely interpreted as a bow) a thirty something woman with gorgeously styled hair stopped pointedly to tip me, spending an entire chorus of Mrs. Robinson getting out her wallet. When I thanked her she told me “I had to, it’s on my iPod right now.” A group of hippie-types sang along in happy off key notes to Leaving on a Jet Plane. A young man smiled broadly the whole tunnel towards me and tipped me with a flourish as I sang High & Dry, telling me “That album saved my life, man.” And I believed him.
With the song vibe I thrived in I found myself able to revisit songs I hadn’t sung in a while. I knew I had to sing Hey There Delilah as Plain White T’s hail from Chicago and it was met with a chorus of “Awwws” from a trio of attractive girls, who giggled when I noticed them. During the chorus of Gotta Have You some pothead types with their brightly colored blankets worn as garments, dreads and beads rejoined, “Whiskey?! I like whiskey!” Immediately before a reaction from a Chinese that said “We’re ignoring you, but we want you to see that we’re ignoring you, you disgrace.” The entire hour pitch ran like this crazy pendulum, each tip dampened by a crude comment and each snub softened by a smile or a thumbs up.
Brent and I met up with Ben for dinner, to take advantage of the $25 dinner allowance offered Brent by the company hoping to acquire his services. (Not in South Beach, of course.) I was admittedly antsy the whole meal, eager to return to the fabulous pitch for a second go. A rather old food baby and calls to Tamiko delayed this pitch somewhat, however, and I didn’t return until ten. On a side note, I noticed upon reviewing Dan’s videos of me singing at 51st and Lexington how flamboyant I come off and today I noticed that my tips decreased after I took off my Trumbull hoodie to expose the deep-v t-shirt beneath – one that only just stretches past the tops of my white jeans and boasts a floral-inspired print on the top left.
My second pitch lasted significantly less time, as the horrid “musicians” on either platform chased me away as their sounds wafted into the passageway. I felt as if I was simply adding to the din. I continued in the same vein as before – the passersby thinned out and the reactions became generally friendlier, and slower yet somehow shyer (and thus less profitable. One guy stayed for the entire duration of Fake Plastic Trees. He cocked his head to give me a curious glance as he neared and then stood by the opposite wall, head down so I saw nothing more of his face beneath the shield of bowl cut golden-brown hair, bouncing a bit as he nodded in time. He waited till I finished before he moved on, without a tip or any further acknowledgement of my presence. Somewhat odd.
For whatever reason, most of my tips this short pitch consisted of dimes. Quite the difference from my previous two five dollar tips. I suppose the timing of my pitch (nearer bar-going time) provided for a different social demographic for the young women passing me – from the average income bracket coming from school or work to a slew of women whose clothing reeked of given money. Unsurprisingly, their tips corresponded inversely with the amount of makeup they wore. After one of my last songs a nice young man shared an eye roll with me after three haughty girls in heels holding their arms and hands at an angle that begged a lit cigarette a la the thirties and slightly open-mouthed expressions recalling old movie sultriness but evoking pretension instead.
Earnings: $27.21, 1.3 hours
Song of the Day: Crazy – Gnarls Barkley