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Busking in Cyberland - Retrospective

Since I've started putting my fiction online, I've been thinking about the nature of crowdfunding, and it has occurred to me that this isn't the first time I've put my creative work before strangers, in the hopes that some of them would choose to become patrons of my art and support my efforts.  So, here is the first part of what I expect will be an occasional series:

Busking in Cyberland, Part One:
A Personal Retrospective

It was the early 1990s, and I was going through a divorce, and trying very hard to be frugal. Still, getting out is important. I really needed to be doing something other than work and brooding on the life I’d been promised, and that wasn’t happening, wasn’t going to happen, and there was nothing I could do to salvage it.

Traveling on the El one day (actually, I was in one of the large stations, walking from the El to transfer to a bus) I heard something—live music. The bright tones of the hammered dulcimer were not coming from anyone’s radio. Don’t ask me how I knew it was live, all I can say is that from the shape of the sound, it was obvious. It transformed the space. Never mind the dozens of people rushing by, ignoring it, I had to go find it. And when I did, there was a musician, with a hammered dulcimer, just as I’d been sure there would be. And though I couldn’t stay around long to listen, it transformed my day.

A week or so later, I thought, “I could do that.” Well, not the hammered dulcimer part; I’ve never owned one of those, though I’d like to. But I play the autoharp. And so, after work, I went down into the subway, opened the autoharp case, and did my thing.

Now, I’d been riding the El (which, in Chicago, is also at times a subway; the trains follow the tracks up and down) for years. I knew what it felt like, how people behaved toward me, and so on. It felt crowded and lonely, routine and risky all at once. You kept your eye or your arm on your purse, and kept it closed.

But when I was standing there with my autoharp, and the case in front of me (with some seed money in it, laying there right out in the open), it all changed. Sure, there were teenage boys who laughed at my folk music, but there were also teenage boys who, when I complimented the beautiful, waist-long hair of one of the group, stopped, turned around, and all emptied their pockets, one even giving me his lucky 50-cent piece, to wish me luck.

And the street people—their behavior changed too; not only did they stop and listen, and sometime throw me a precious dime or two, but they treated me differently. I felt welcomed, accepted—and safer than I have ever before or since in that setting. They were the first to retrieve the contents of my case if a careless commuter kicked it, and replace the cash safely inside, returning the coins to their position on top of the paper money to keep the wind of the trains from blowing my earnings away.

And after a while, even if you aren’t good at reading people, when playing songs you have thoroughly memorized you realize that busking is very much a social interaction, and that playing for different people, though they are equally strangers, is different. It amazed me that one person, smiling and nodding and intent on the music could create a rush of harmonious energy, so the music got better—and easier!—like a force of nature. There were woman who came up with a small donation, assuring me they were praying for my safety. And there were lurkers too—you could tell were listening only by their head nodding slightly, in time, behind the book or newspaper that shielded them from the crowd.  And I still wonder at the folks, usually in suits, who would stand off to the side or listen from behind a column, then toss in money when a train was pulling in, and they thought no one would notice. 

I didn’t get rich, busking, but I got a little bit less poor. And it transformed my world, made it bigger, and friendlier, and safer, in ways I didn’t expect and at a time when I really needed those things.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 14th, 2009 11:54 am (UTC)
I've never been brave enough to play in public, but my dad and I were playing guitar together this past weekend - and one of the songs we played was "Rambling Boy". :)

Ooh, and it's the first time I get to use my new 'music' icon, too!
Jul. 14th, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)
You play violin?
Jul. 14th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
I did, in elementary school, but I always wished it was a guitar. I started playing guitar at 14 and still do.

Every once in a while I think about getting back to the violin, but given my new-found realization that I can't do everything at once, it's on the back burner for now.

Hooray for other Paxton fans!
Jul. 14th, 2009 12:18 pm (UTC)
Wow, what a great story!
Jul. 14th, 2009 03:09 pm (UTC)
This is a lovely, wonderful moving account. Wow. I so enjoyed reading it. It seems so so true, and really resonates. I don't have much experience busking (only once, and it was with a group of people, so it really didn't count), but once, when I had only had my fiddle for about a month and a half, I was on a trip and was taking my kids to the Minneapolis Zoo, and since it was a hot day, I couldn't leave the fiddle in the car, so took it into the zoo with me. At one point, my mom, who was with the kids, got separated from me, and I had a long wait outside the Monkey House, and I settled down on a shady bench and played my fiddle for about a half an hour. I'm sure I was really terrible, but I knew a lot of tunes, and but what amazed me was how the children were all drawn to it. The parents for the most part wouldn't look at me, but their kids slowed, and stopped, and had to be practically dragged away.

Okay, I'm done yacking now, and I'm going to read your narrative again....
Jul. 14th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, kids are a great audience. Not very many of them during rush hours in downtown Chicago, though.
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing that. I enjoyed being taken back into that experience in your life. I have been reading your posts on LJ and wishing that I had more disposable income to dispose your way in repayment for the pleasure your stories have given me though each post is way way to short for me:)
Jul. 15th, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)
Today's continuation of the story will be a little longer. (-:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I know disposable income is short for lots of people, and I do feel supported and inspired when I get verbal feedback, even though I can't use those "gems" to buy groceries.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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