This is opening rewritten fragment to longer piece… about 800 words of 9000.
“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing my bad habits.”
Jefferson Street 1980
One of the grittiest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. Hat is shorthand— by hat I mean stone cold cash you can count out and hold in your hand after a performance. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come to believe life was about running wild and being free. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there were no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a dreamer drowning in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.
I had been stalling. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long it was now a fresh and unused January of 1980. I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf, it was a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak. Streets were empty but for the mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer preparing to place his fateful future on the line.
Making it to the tippy top of the small time sidewalk show 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 one quarter of one hour’s journey to glorious acclaim or crushing 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 self-claimed constitutionally guaranteed concrete stage. This is the pedestrian’s coliseum. You are an entertainment gladiator.
Raspy voiced, drained emotionally, the unrelenting grinding first day exacted its toll. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered on the whim and the will was retried and refined. Improvement inched ahead uphill— grudgingly.
A More Present Era Likeness
In a scalding hot heartbeat the first weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated in my head like a broken record. Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat tortured my lean confidence. Curious youngsters begging parents wanted to stay to see what happened next. Children recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin busking veneer and pleaded to stay to see what further trials this odd bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. Standing in scuffed shoe leather a beat cop ordered that I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways half curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced smoking cigarettes. Assorted stubborn misfits, the grizzled survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own scramble to make ends meet had not even a spare moment to fritter away calculating the odds of my surviving. 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, civilizations western most outpost, an emphatic continental end of the line— the leading edge of some one of a kind dubious vocational enterprise.
Street theater is first and foremost about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes four, four turns into eight; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Practitioner’s of this centuries old enterprise have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd— how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt to live another day, execution is the whole enchilada. Wily buskers got this one word— survival— tattooed across their chest— there is no second chance, prosper or perish, show up, play big, be present for the only moment that counts. Get real you overzealous flame throwing heartbreaker or sit back down— life is short.