10-6-03, 9:43 AM -
Don't ever let anyone tell you that busking is easy. It isn't.
In need of a better place than our apartment to get my vocals into shape, I opted to avail myself of the large outdoor rehearsal space provided to all citizens of New York: Central Park.
I figured I could rehearse on a wooded path & maybe make some extra bucks in the process. To increase the likelihood of attracting attention, I donned my old suit & fedora, vintage tie clip & all. Scared the hell out of our local bodega-owner when I stopped in for Tic Tacs.
"Senor!! That is some suit. Did you win the lottery?"
Tipping my hat, I replied, "If I had won the lottery, I wouldn't be hauling this bigass guitar down 10th Avenue in a suit." Or something less clever than that.
I schlepped my eccentric ass over to Columbus Circle, wondered once again what might happen to the half-completed AOL Time Warner towers being built there, then entered the park.
The first question: Where to set up?
Central Park is friggin' huge, and on Sundays any number of people could pass on a given path. I decided to go with my favorite area, the Mall. There's a majestic tree canopy over the straight, wide, ornate path, & it's good for sound amplification.
But as I had suspected, that turf was spoken for. An overplaying saxophonist was covering one end, and a man with some kind of bowed Asian contraption occupied the other. I tried standing midway between them, but there was just enough overlap to make a third minstrel undesirable. Unless we all got to jamming, which didn't seem likely.
Making my way towards Bethesda Fountain, I passed a Mennonite women's choir recital on the wooden stage just off of the Mall. I never see organized events on that stage, just whoever wanders by. If I had been ballsier, I would've asked to go on next. But the wind was chilly, & my nuggets were retracted.
"Would you like a CD?" a young Mennonite girl asked from my elbow. Her sandy hair was raggedly tucked into her traditional bonnet. It occurred to me to ask if she'd ever heard the CD, since the avoidance of such modern devilments is a hallmark of their sect. But she was 13 and brainwashed, and such a question would likely send her into catatonic shock, if not the screaming mimis.
"Thanks," I said, smiling as I accepted this newfangled tool of God. I thought about offering her a CD of mine, but again with the screaming mimis.
"Hey, Meestah Blues Bruthahs!!" a craggy Carribean voice called from a nearby bench. An ancient white-clad islander eyed me as he spoke. "Why don' you break dat geetah out an' play somethin'?"
I saw that he held a small flute, possibly a piccolo. I've experienced impromptu jam sessions with crazy old men before, and they seldom end well.
"I don't know any hymns," I replied, nodding in the direction of the singing Mennonites.
"Ha, ha, ha!" he laughed, as if ready to offer me discount airfare to Jamaica. "All right, sonny boy, I think I'll see you back here soon!"
Yes. And that's because you're insane.
Arriving at Bethesda Fountain (a postcard vision, no matter how many times you see it), I was stunned to see that there were no performers in sight. Pete don't have to nudge me twice.
I pulled out the old faithful Takamine, left the case open in front of me, and began to play. And it was one of the most enjoyable rehearsals I've ever had. I wouldn't call it a performance, because people out for a day in the park will generally only stop to listen for five minutes at the maximum. So mostly you're playing for yourself.
And people did stop. Tourists, bike people, wheelchair jockeys, little kids, schnauzers, even the occasional squirrel. Makes you feel a bit like the pied piper. Though if I started attracting rats, I'd probably hang it up for good.
Funny thing about busking, though. You never know how many panhandlers, musicians or preacherpoets your audience members have passed before they get to you. So you're never sure what the size of your patrons' donations signifies.
Maybe the old lady who gave you ten cents in pennies was paying you a great compliment. Maybe she was giving you a pity donation. Maybe the mother and daughter who stopped their bikes to listen for two whole songs but then didn't donate were just out of money, or only had large bills. It's happened to me many times, & I kinda felt bad about it.
So you just don't make those judgements. You smile and you play and you hope the combination of someone's daily transactions and your nerd rock wailings will present an opportunity for Supporting The Arts, giving them a warm feeling and you a burger with a side of mozzarella sticks.
Or in the case of my time by the fountain, jut the mozzarella sticks.
The old guitar case was still looking a bit barren at the close of my first hour, and it was then that I noticed a long-haired carnie-looking guy setting up an elaborate performance space over to my left by the big stone staircase.
Upon finishing the song I was playing, I nodded pleasantly in his direction. He smiled a bit, then didn't, then came up close to me, eyebrow raised.
"Hey man, I guess, like, you're new around here and stuff," he mumbled in Yankee Stadium New Yorkese. "So, like, I guess I should tell you how it works."
"Umm...okay." What was this, a threat? Was the mob muscle waiting behind the bushes?
"See, this arear is, like, what you call the performing artist space, not like musicians and stuff, but like, big stuff." He really needed a big cigar & a quarter to flip in one hand.
"Big stuff like what?" I asked dubiously.
"Well, like, I'm the Flashman."
"Yeah, I do, like, the big magic tricks & stuff."
"Yeah, and my friend over there does stuff, too." He pointed to a short guy in the stone entryway whose trick seemed to be surrounding himself with candles. "We're here all the time."
I felt a distinct irritation that someone called the Flashman was trying to tell me where I could and couldn't play, but a glance over at the pittance in my guitar case made me reconsider an argument.
"So, Flashman," I asked, "Where do you think is the best spot for musicians?"
With this, the Flashman turned suddenly friendly.
"Actually, you're lucky today," he said conspiratorially. "There's a great spot in front of the Boathouse where this old guy usually sits. But I passed it earlier and he's not there. I'd go grab it if I was you."
"Well, thanks, Flashman," I said, extending my hand. No sense alienating the Flashman. He might turn me into a newt.
"No problem," he winked, slapping his sweaty mitt into mine. "Hey, don't let those cops give you any heat. You're acoustic, you ain't botherin' nobody."
I packed up my stuff, hoping the cops he spoke of were hypothetical, and not real ones he had sighted by my prospective spot. I'm still a bit unclear about the public performance laws in this city. I know you're supposed to have a license if you want to perform in the subway stations, but I've never found any specific information online about busking in the park.
But there ain't no way all these crazy people I see doing it all the time are licensed, so I figure the cops have better things to do than to write tickets to people who probably can't pay them. Or maybe they don't, and I'm about to get my first New York ticket.
As I flipped the last latch on my case, I heard a frantic flute-like noise echoing through the vaulted tunnel at my back.
"Meestah Blues Bruthahs!" Calypso Louie boomed. "You done already?"
"Just trying a change of scenery. You?"
"I play for everybody!" He grinned wide, then continued on towards the fountain, releasing random blasts of pseudo-musical flute noise. Just then I noticed that he had no cup or bag to collect donations. I chalked another one up for my instincts, then took off for the Boathouse.
The Flashman didn't lie. Close to the Boathouse was an intersection of several paths, and an empty patch of grass lay waiting for me. Again I played, again people listened, again the donations were hit-n-miss.
I wondered if maybe the suit wasn't helping. If you look like you can afford a suit, you don't look as pitiful and in need of cash. Maybe I should get a stained shirt & holey pants. And not wash my hair for a while.
That seemed to be the plan of the old geezer who eventually parked himself next to me on the grass.
"This your spot?" I asked, figuring this to be the old man of whom the Flashman spoke.
"Yeah," he said patiently. This was obviously not his first turf war. "Name's Rich."
He eyed me knowingly. "You're new, huh?"
"Yeah," I confirmed. He furrowed his already furrowed brow. I began to wonder if I was the only Central Park busker under 40.
"You know," he offered for likely the hundredth time, "A good spot for you would be up on that path." He pointed through the trees to the path leading to the fountain. "Lots of people, and no one's playing there."
"Anyone own it?" I asked cautiously, not relishing another eviction. I was beginning to feel like a foster child.
"Not recently," Rich said rather quietly.
Might be a story there, I thought, but he had already turned to his little cart and started unloading. It wasn't immediately evident what his schtick was, but I felt like getting on with my thing, so I packed up.
I felt a bit silly being bumped around from place to place, but the thing was that these people seemed a bit more in need of a buck than me. Which is a perception they've no doubt learned to cultivate over the years, but I'm generally not one to try and bilk an old man out of his lunch money.
Waving goodbye to Rich, I walked up to the path he had indicated and spotted a bench. That's what I needed. I sat for a while, feeling a bit foolish that I had brought ten copies of my CD to sell. In 2 hours, I hadn't yet made the price of one disc. But then I remembered: This was a rehearsal. And even if it wasn't, I've certainly played gigs for less.
So I just set up next to the bench & let fly. People stopped, people donated, & I got a lot of practice on material I hadn't played in a while.
This last spot was a bit quieter than the others, and it made my mind wander. I thought about all of the street performers who may have worked this very same spot over the last 150 years. What became of them, and when & why did they stop? If you're not a dayjobber out for a lark, this can be a nerve-wracking gig.
But then, such have the performing arts always been. Whoever stood here in 1855 was probably a hell of a lot worse off than me, and a bit more stinky besides.
Around 5:00, the chill in the wind began to sharpen, and my voice was tired. Hearing the warble of the flute-beast echoing up from the fountain, I made my exit via Strawberry Fields. I was unsurprised to see an old hippie strumming Hey Jude by the "Imagine" memorial on the sidewalk there.
My brain reminded me that actually, Hey Jude was a McCartney song, but it was written about Lennon's kid, so whatever.
Stepping onto the C train, I suddenly remembered that I was wearing my suit. A gaggle of little kids stood transfixed, watching me as they might a live Pokemon. I tipped my hat and ate a Tic Tac.
No sir, busking ain't easy. But you know, neither is pimpin'. And my ho-slapping arm hurts from all that Tae Bo anyway.