One of the hardest hand to mouth games ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany struck fresh and wild. Destitution and insolvency are bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there are no lucky breaks or easy streets on this path— you can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a tangled soul drowning in a world insisting on obedience. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. Life on Easy Street is over. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, that you’re at risk of drowning in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.
Since 1972 I had been stalling. I’d put off the day so long it was now a fresh and unused January of 1980. I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf on a overcast cool dry morning. Crazy early sunrise. The streets were empty but for the sounds of mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and one tentative soul preparing to put his future on the line.
To make it to the top of the small time I’d need to find a way of delivering my best razor sharp fifteen minutes. Running too long was too much and too short added up to too little. All in from start to finale was not one second more than fifteen minute journey to glorious acclaim or agonizing defeat. I jiggered the running order, discarded one routine added another. I invented jokes there and then, whipped up wisecracks on the fly. This is throwing it down. Street performing is about owning every inch of the concrete self proclaimed stage. This is the coliseum. You are an entertainment warrior.
A Lifetime of Playing with Fire
Raspy voiced, drained emotionally, the unrelenting grinding first day had taken a toll. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered ever so slightly is retried, polished and refined. Improvement inches ahead grudgingly.
Like that the weekend zipped by, three days work reverberated like a broken record in my head. Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat set fire to my withering courage. Youngsters charmed with wonder in their eyes wanting to see what happened next. They recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised within the busker and begged their parents to stay for the end. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat cop wearing out his shoe leather ordered that I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced smoking cigarettes. The other assorted stubborn misfits and survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own work had not even a spare moment to fritter away. My peers didn’t need to know, they knew. Those relationships would grow if I could make my sidewalk show stick. Jefferson Street was wide open if you were foolish enough. Here was untamed frontier, western civilizations western most outpost, an end of the line– the leading edge of a new possibility.