I began my first rainy day in Nelson with my standard two eggs in toast, a good a start as one can find, really. I took my time waiting to make sure the rain would hold off (one gets a good sense for weather when one’s livelihood depends upon it) and headed the few blocks to the CBD for a busk on Trafalgar street. I set up outside a Starbucks who’s permission I obtained – sign, seed change, song list, CDs, business card, Zebra, water bottle – for a thoroughly unsuccessful pitch. I really only stuck around to await my host Roger, who’d said he’d like to meet me busking. Roger was quite surprised I earned anything at all the previous night and I felt curious about his estimation of my skill. He stayed for Streets of London and requested a falsetto song – I supplied She’s So High. Back home, he noted how I tapered at the ends of phrases in both volume and enunciation, and how it wasn’t his “type of singing, but you have a good voice.” Roger’s been an organist and very much involved in Sacred Anglican music much of his life. To return to the pitch, I earned about a dollar fifty from a generally uninterested clientele. Or interested but avoidant (children and parents and old people sitting far to the side).
I felt a bit miffed and down – probably the weather contributed. Finding Tehanu in the Nelson public library and finishing it in a sudden burst of sunlight cured me of this, though checking my email to find an extremely large health bill from my Hawai’i Clinic visit plunged me into a deeper funk and despair. What can the ones and twos and silver coins do to compare with the enormous sums from huge faceless bodies in the government (which believes I owe them five hundred more in taxes) and healthcare? I’ve begun to really despise the system of government I was born to, having seen the alternatives abroad. Here I avoid healthcare for the fear of payment and that’s normal to me, yet quite insane to my hosts and fellow travellers. Here I am charged to pay full taxes from earning less than five figures and those same foreign nationals simply don’t understand. Not that Nelson is free of such bureaucracy. I entered town hall to register as a busker and needed to sign off on some pretty ridiculous bylaws. Which I promptly broke.
I’m afraid I somewhat took it out in song. I found an arcade of absolutely gorgeous acoustics across from a fashion shop and jeweller’s with light pedestrian traffic, people leaving the closing shopping district to the cars through the arcade. Every song I sang for my probably way to long pitch reeked of self-pity, at least in delivery. My delivery of The Blower’s Daughter, in particular, won me some particularly pissed off looks from a stodgy white family. Frankly, I didn’t give a rat’s ass. I figured I’d use the maxim of busking emotion – smile and be happy, sing happy songs and songs people know if you want to do well, or if you sing sad songs, cry, be really really sad. Gotta be believable. Well I didn’t exactly cry, but I was in a slightly hostile mood, especially with the increasingly hostile looks from passersby. Not a great relationship. Great acoustics though. Great place to hear myself sing, to pitch correct and so on.
I did receive a few tips, however, especially after a few songs when I’d cooled down from pissed off despair to bitter nostalgia. Not enough, though, not nearly enough. A sweet, end, though, with the jewellers who’d passed me many times walking in and out of the entrance during my entire pitch stopping me as I packed up with a two dollar coin and “Don’t pack up just yet!” and a warm smile.
I’d promised to cook dinner. With a quick survey of prices with Robert, I decided to improvise a Chinese style meal with eggplants, bok choy, bean sprouts, beef, garlic, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, and rice. As per usual, cooking lifts my spirits back to a more tolerable level. Filled with “home-cooking” complete with a free eggplant courtesy of a redressed mistake, I headed out for another night pitch. First I scoped out Hardy street. I thought I’d give it a go, but while I debated which side of the street to play, a thirty something white man with a flamboyant air and accent asked me brightly if I had the guitar why wasn’t I playing it for him. Apparently he asked in jest, surprised at my answering question about the better side to ply.
He recovered shortly and asked me, “Is it just you, alone?”
“Yes” I replied not really knowing where this could be heading.
“I’d, um, I’d be careful around here, I don’t know why it is, but around here, around here a lot of people treat people like you, I mean Asians really roughly.” Earnest, soft, kind.
“Really? Is it that bad?”
“We’ve had a few… instances recently… I don’t know, if you head to… You know what I’ll take you there, you should be fine there.” Walking now towards Bridge St. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from the States.”
“Oh!” He stops me, turns me to face him, eyes me with a grin, “You don’t look American.”
I’m a bit flabbergasted by his well-meaning ignorance.
“If you play here around twelve to three…”
“That late!” It’d just turned nine thirty.
“Yeah… as long as you’re in a well-lit place and near the security guards… all the bars have security guards you see and they’re good people.. you should be totally fine.”
“Well, thank you very much!” Ready to set up and play now, unworried myself.
“Take care of yourself, dear.”
And as we part a very drunk Maori man asks if I need to a place to stay, a dry leaf in his disheveled hair.
I chose a spot near a food stall, but a small worm inching its way nearby scared me sufficiently to move further away from it, and not anywhere downwind, safely tucked between two bars. The leering men sitting in the open air portion of the bar who asked me “Chinese?” with crude attempts to imitate the sounds also deterred me. So began the start of a pitch I never should have begun. Or continued, for that matter.
Not long after I restarted my first song in my worm-free new location, a young maori woman across the way very pointedly displayed her middle finger on an upraised arm with hostile eyes. She and her mates made sure to get my attention with calls and just stubborn continuance when I didn’t acknowledge this action. I continued to ignore them and they changed tack with some waving, which I took to be friendly, thinking maybe their rude gesture and raucous noises merely denoted drunken antics at a convenient target with no specific malice. I waved back and bowed a bit. Rain began to fall, and they threw coins towards me – two single dollar coins – missing such that the a squat maori girl stumbled into the street to fetch them and drop them in, refusing a request or even to look at me as she did so. A bit odd.
All throughout I endured comments such as “You’re not going to get any money.” Jeers, taunts, sniggers. One fake request of Rob Zombie which turned into a genuinely interested and appreciative singalong to Under the Bridge allowed me to cast these as misguided machismo. I did sing rather near that same strip club, after all. Many comments which sounded particularly… hm.. racist? in tone were the ones I ignored so well and we said so soft that I’ve no idea if I attributed the racism afterwards or if such was intrinsic to the hatred. At any rate, my un-lucrative pitch took a further hit when the proprieter of the bar I played near asked me to move (kindly). One friendly security guard recommended I sing in front of the closed Kebab shop across the way “So I can still hear you” with a broad smile. Of course, I obliged.
Nearer to the large crowd in the windowless section of this teeming bar where those maori girls and white guys first gestured at me, I hoped to capitalize on the captive audience. The hostile looks from groups of white men grew more overt, however, some seeming to leave a glow hanging in the air long after they’d passed along. Then, my confusion on the intent of my first tippers became clear. They stumbled towards the side of the street I’d just quit, but not before the slimmer girl told me, coldly, “You’re making trouble for yourself. It’s a Friday.” (The relevance of the latter I don’t understand, still). “I’d be careful walking home.” and other such not quite veiled threats. I hope I’ve made clear how I usually assume the best of people and laugh off friendly warnings of racism. But these words, the way she said them and they way she looked at me with bad teeth and stinking breath, these words so similar to the friendly warning of my flamboyant chum, these words convinced me beyond a doubt that the hostility I’d been receiving all night stemmed from my colour.
I sang a song or two until the rain lightened a touch, and then I walked back to Roger’s through the darkish alleways at a very brisk pace.
Earnings: 17.90 NZD
Song of the Day: The Blower’s Daughter – Damien Rice