Cheered in Chicago, Day 3

Model home much?

I’m rather sensitive to cold. Or sensitive, period. As such I couldn’t abide multiple pitches on my third day in Chicago (11.13.10). Perhaps owing to the victory of the previous day, I overestimated my pitch – that and the platform buskers were inordinately loud and horrid. Ben accompanied me to the Jackson station, where I began with Your Song… which didn’t have much of a reception. While he stayed we noticed a pronounced display of the racial lines that emerge in regards to my tippers. To be blunt: they’re all black.

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the black passersby interact most easily with me. For whatever reason (and coincidentally Ben and I had engaged in a long discussion on the legacy of slavery, earlier) they’re by and large comfortable with me. They see me as a human and aren’t shy or guilty at all. Hence the intimidation and the false tips but also encouragement and real tips, too. Here in America we like to pretend we’re past the issues of race. Comedians often use this false assumption to excuse otherwise offensive jokes, but at street level you can see just how deep the divisions are.

Not long after I began, a scruffy looking black man paused next to me, suggesting things for me to play: Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin (all curiously white artists who covered black music), calling out artists as even as he passed away. Of the few who tipped me during the entire pitch, all but two were black. The first of these was a thin, ragged man with what looked to be cerebral palsy. He didn’t say a word – perhaps he couldn’t – and didn’t even lift his head. It took him forty painstaking seconds to extricate a dollar bill with one shaking hand from a wallet he held in the crook of his other permanently stiff, bent arm. Everything about him looked slow and deliberate and pained, even as he shuffled in that characteristic way down towards the red platform.

I think I’ve noted my rejection of trickle down, but that last serves as a perfect example – those who do not have share. Those who have guard jealously. I think this also feeds into the divisions of race. Today especially the white men who passed displayed particularly cruel and haughty faces. They had a way of not looking at me that conveyed “Hey, I’m not looking at you.” The nicer ones seemed skittish and nervous around me, put on the spot by my presence and judged by the lack of generosity being shoved in their face. At one point in the middle of my pitch a rather square-jawed specimen with broad shoulders and laconic eyes called out to me, “Well, are you going to sing anything?” A comment that’s become all too common and mocking from mid thirties white males while I’m adjusting my capo. Happily this slight was hastily mended by a young (white) girl who passed seconds after I began, squealing at the first line of Yellow and reaching out for a high five that I met. I made sure to stare pointedly at the assholic mocker after this, whose eyes were still cast haughtily back towards me.

Now, I’ve already detailed a bit of the intimidation that’s the flip side to most of my black passersby. The distinction between these fake tips and joshing lies in the feel of them. When white men remain silent it feels distinctly as if they’re speaking of their superiority. I received a flurry of such looks as I sang She’s So High. When black youth mess with me they often look a bit apologetic afterwards, and one can see in their eyes they’re just having some fun – they see me as an equal. These dichotomous racial lines blur and nearly fade with increasing age, however. All the older passersby today treated me very kindly regardless of tipping, meeting me with smiles and thumbs ups – one elderly pair of women infected me with a bright, bright smile during Streets of London.

The exception are Asians. I experienced the most withering look I’ve had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of about forty minutes into my pitch, from a distinctly Cantonese-looking trio of a middle aged couple and a grandma. It amazes me still what they packed into that three second glare – shame, disgust, incredulity, horror… (I know I’ve missed many racial groups but these are the ones that stand out with distinct behaviors. Others and foreigners act in such a myriad of ways I can’t stereotype them fairly.)

It being a weekend, the trains ran less often, giving me more down time between the crushes of people. Ben departed to study upstairs in the Barnes & Noble after just a few songs and I bid him farewell with There She Goes… a joke he didn’t take too kindly too. I saved a particularly dry spell from destroying the pitch with a slew of “winners” : Mad World, Liberta, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Towards the end my voice flagged with the last drop of my little bottle of water. I wanted to wrap up with Landslide but at that moment a tall, cheerful black man (yup) stopped and happily tossed coins into my case from the opposite wall, one at a time, saying “Just keep playing!” brightly. He took the phone number I’d withheld from the bassist the previous day. Rodrick, as he introduced himself, was also a bass player who loved my voice and needed a singer. I couldn’t let him depart in silence, so I sang precisely one more song.

Earnings: $11.72, 1 hour
Song of the Day: Landslide – Fleetwood Mac

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