As if to remind me of the nature of busking, Tuesday sucked. On the whole it felt very blah – I think I’ve gotten too used to busking. Few experiences feel novel – certainly not the good ones. The first times someone smiled back at me, or sang along or snapped a photo or gave a kind word or tipped that simple act could sustain me for a long time. Like any job, though, the longer one does it the less one values these interactions and the more one cares about the money. It’s unfortunate. With busking, especially, as one’s mood figures so strongly in one’s income. I can’t fake happiness very well, or gratitude or forgiveness or enthusiasm or emotion. People can always see that. Every time I busk, though, I find I need to manufacture these more and more. Wonder turns to a feeling of “clocking in.” Gratitude to a misguided sense of being slighted – where every passerby becomes someone who owes me something, when that isn’t true at all, so that even the ones who tip don’t make me happy but more a feeling of “Geez, about time!” Negative all round – the worst sort as the occupation goes – I feel unhappy being there and it probably shows and the passersby likely feel unhappy not giving – if I give them the benefit of the doubt. But what can I do?
Tim dropped me off on Frenchmen street, which he suggested based on it’s liveliness at night. Unfortunately such life sleeps or works during the daytime. By starting my walk into the main quarter there, however, I met a nice busker who goes by “Cajun” and gave me the rundown of the various New Orleans busker rules of etiquette and police laws – play half a block away from the next musician, Royal’s the best bet, etc.
Really the one thing that salvaged my day was meeting the buskers, street vendors and statues of the city. Without them I may have been very depressed. A certain solidarity borne of tough times brought us together – the card readers had no business. The stores stayed empty, the tip receptacles untouched. Cajun introduced me to Dragon James, one of the card readers, who sympathized with my inability to play Jackson Square with the 7 piece brass band dominating the soundscape – they’re relatively new and play the same 5 songs over and over – they’d blown out a cello/guitar duo who he actually enjoyed. Everywhere else in the quarter large raggedly attired groups commanded whole stretches of blocks. On Royal I stood sandwiched between a five piece blues band – quite good but oh so terribly dressed, take a shower, eh? – and an amped blues guitarist with an excellent rumbly voice. For the short test pitch I played, the few passersby who looked like the might be the tipping type (sometimes you can just tell) looked to be rebuttoning purses and stowing wallets from a previous tip.
I’ve heard it said that New Orleans is a tough city that buskers come to see if they’re any good – if they can make it here they can do well anywhere. I believe I’m failing that test. This day really got to me. Some kind of existential crisis where I realized “I’m not doing anything special, I’m just singing pop songs. Most people can play like me.” I felt I wasn’t any good, that I shouldn’t be a busker – I don’t know what specifically it was, because I don’t think the quality really blew me away – more the attitudes. If nothing else I’m certainly unique in the city as the only oldie/pop singer, which is a strange distinction and a new for me. Then again I’ve noticed recently that I’m far too judgmental and snobby about other buskers. I dismiss them for the gimmicks I see and rarely begrudge any troupe a positive association in my mind without classifying them with the negative “ugh. competition.” Really, I shouldn’t despise a bad didgeridoo player for playing up the spectacle or an aggressive busker wrangling passersby, trying to shame them into tipping – they understand the reality of the job and they play to it. I’m too much of an idealist to be a good busker. An aristocrat, as Mindy says. A sad state of affairs when I keep myself from enjoying the work of others who ply my trade. That same sort of jealous guarding I feel building in myself that I hate in others – that bitterness Jerry in Boston showed from too many years with the reality of busking.
I hope this proves a phase. There remains so much I love about busking, but this day yielded little of it. As a busker waiting on a pitch told me – he called himself guitarman – adversity is part of travel and one of the best parts. He also made $17 the previous day. Curious. But even him – something about the demographic he represents as a busker bothers me significantly, but I’ll write more on that tomorrow. I try so hard to be upstanding and proper, asking in the shops (denied twice, once with a nice man who said “Go out there and fight” on my lament about Royal) before each possible pitch and deferring to other buskers – and for what? Their aggression and rudeness wins out. As in Poland, might makes right on the street. I want to go out and perform, not fight. At least here that’s not the nature of the business, though.
With no tips on Royal I wandered off to the riverside promenade, where after passing two very painful buskers – a panhandling trumpeter and an effect laden electric “guitarist” (yes I’m self consciously poking fun at my own snobbishness) I found a nice, peaceful pitch facing the river. Where the quarter itself saw many pedestrians the riverside walk saw a steady but slow traffic of strollers and joggers. I yielded four different tips and one made my day alright – an understanding, appreciative fiver from an elderly black woman who’d sat on a bench nearby for a few oldies. Actually, every tip came from a person of color. The riverside felt nice. Halfway through I switched sides to face away from the river and catch the weak and waning rays of sunshine and through the peace of that pitch I managed to recapture a tiny bit of why I busk. Many strollers smiled at me, and none took photos. I thought the smiles without tips a bit odd, but couldn’t really do much about it.
I played a final half hour pitch on Jackson Square right as the brass band left and the sun hid behind St. Louis Cathedral. Very few tourists came through as I sang. A disproportionate number of police passed. Those tourists who did pass took photos or hurried along with heads down. No tips. Without Jenessa, the card reader whose stall lay to my immediate left, I may have broken down. She clapped after my first song, then sympathized with my insecurity about not being any good – each additional non tip hit as a personal rejection (another reason I shouldn’t be a busker, as I’m rather too sensitive) with an affirmation of my music and “It’s been my worst day, ever, too, but hey that’s how it goes sometimes.”
And I wonder: how does that work? How do days have vibes like that? Are people’s moods so infectious but even if so the moods should even out so I don’t understand the science of how it’s possible to have good days for everyone – there must be some critical mass effect. One too many slightly more down people in the morning and the whole city suffers.
Song of the Day: Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel
Earnings: $7.50, 2 hours