Tag Archives: Busking

Chicken on the head

“I know what you’re thinking. What a horrible way for a chicken to have to make a living. Well, there are a lot of chickens working at Safeway and they’re not having half as much fun.”

Word Count 2208…

The Chicken on the Head Routine

Uncle Ray’s playing two trumpets simultaneously was his tour de force sidewalk show closer. Squeezing a drum between his knees, strumming a guitar, tapping his drum with a brush, keeping time with a tambourine taped to his boot, wearing a vintage leather aviators helmet, goggles, playing the same four or five songs for the simple reason that the four or five he played were the songs that paid. The dual trumpet bit was  icing on the cake, a signature bit, always the attention grabber.

The two of us shared the same piece of sidewalk, same days of the week and same hours of the day. As audiences go his people were my people, and mine were his. Ray was a colleague. I knew what he knew. There was mutual respect. Banging out three or four hours on Jefferson Street one more day was to defy the odds.

 When Uncle Ray wasn’t working the pitch on Jefferson Street he was in a club. I never asked his age. Best estimate he was a youthful fifty-something. Ray worked his spot, made his nut, spent the rest of the week playing jazz around town in the clubs. The lanky gentleman was a military veteran, served in Viet Nam. Bald, bearded, Ray as the result of a misaligned jaw spoke with an unique palette induced effect. The busking bugler was well loved, had a lady and a colorfully curtained Volkswagen bus he used for winter stints in Baja. Ray and his lady-friend shared an upscale apartment at the corner of Euclid and Masonic. This was a classy upscale view pad. There was a balcony, parking, floor to ceiling windows. Uncle Ray lived in style afforded to a man capable of his dual trumpet skills.

Word had come down that the San Francisco Police Department had made a sweep of Fisherman’s Wharf. Street acts were arrested in mass. There were no questions asked, no warning given. The police pulled up, handcuffed the so called public nuisance, tossed the riff-raff into the paddy wagon and took the perpetrators downtown. By chance Ray and I both had  the day off. We’d missed all the fun.

Soon enough we’d got word that the orders for the sweep had come from Central Precinct in North Beach. Most know Central Station by its nickname: Keystone. Out on the street rumor was the Captain  wanted it known that until further notice the streets in his precinct were closed to busking. If anyone didn’t get the memo, someone had a problem, thought this was some kind of misunderstand, then the Captain would be more than happy to set the misinformed individual straight on who was actually running the show.

Four of us go down to see the Captain. Took about two seconds for the front-desk duty-officer to size up the four patsies disturbing his peace. Annoyed, but then the Duty Officer was born annoyed, got off his chair double clutched his scowl, then marched us down the hallway  into the precinct Captain’s office.

Seated at his desk with his lieutenant standing at his side the precinct Captain gave the appearance of being absolutely in charge of every square block under his command.

Our Captain  was Italian, suave and groomed to code. Sizing us up wasn’t even tic-tac-toe, the former beat cop had us pegged. We were maybe a troupe of Boy Scouts out on their first field trip. None of the four of us had an prior’s mostly on account of dumb luck. We had not heard gun shots, been in a fist fights or had any experience trying to make nice while cuffing a man twice our size. Our precinct Captain was concerned about pimps, muggers and burglars. Our coming to protest our busking associates being arrested was quaint. All we were doing was wasting his time, he wouldn’t say as much, but all there was for us to do was wait for the Captain’s final  decision to penetrate our thick skulls. We were the piece of his official duties that fell under the heading of community relations. This was the first time for us to try playing the change the Captain’s mind game whereas the Captain hoped it would be his last. The learning curve was steep. He had an edge. He was paid to wait.

Part of the Captain’s job was every now and then while waiting for a group aggrieved citizens to see the light, well he’d have to take a brief moment out of his busy schedule for the purpose of explaining the facts of life in the event certain present individuals in his company might well still be confused about who was actually in charge of the City’s sidewalks. He’d had it much tougher. We were almost fun.

Our Captain had worked his way up the ranks. Starts out in traffic, domestic violence, vagrancy that sort of thing. Later he’s in homicide, sex crimes unit, tactical squad, undercover narcotics investigators—the Captain is busy fighting crime and keeping the peace. The thing to know is that it was an embarrassment for a San Francisco Police Officer to have to go to Fisherman’s wharf and have to crack down on the street performers. Putting a tear eyed street performer in the slammer put the jinx on a cops career. Police work entailed fighting up to no good paroled felons. Sensitive street performers weren’t even clowns.

The precinct Captain gestures with the wave of his hand, “Take a seat.” He closes a file on his desk. “You want a glass of water?” None of us are thirsty. “Coffee?”

 The Captain pushes his chair back. On the wall behind him are photographs of the many very important people he has posed with over the course of his years of service. There are pictures with Willie Brown, Herb Caen, Joe Alioto, Tony Bennett, Turk Murphy and Vince Guaraldi. All the famous fat cats were mounted behind the precinct Captain in neat black and white eight by tens.

Smiling with an ever so slight brooding undercurrent he attempts to explain the situation. “My Lieutenant here, I had asked if he would take me for a drive through Fisherman’s Wharf.” The Captains cadence had a slight lilt, a bit of a rhythmic hop, skip and a jump. He continued, “Merchants had come to us with concerns, they had some complaints about street performers. Merchants said things were getting out of hand, that the police were going to have to do what they have to do to take back control of our public thoroughfares.” Our Captain smiling and seeming relaxed looked sympathetically toward his assembled quorum. “I told my Lieutenant I wanted to see the situation for myself- with my own eyes. I mean I like street performers—who doesn’t like street performers? Everybody likes to see street performers. And so with an open mind my Lieutenant and I, the two of us, we go for a drive in my precinct. Get it? My precinct. I got the wharf, North Beach, Chinatown and a piece of the Financial District under my watch. I’d rather be sitting on Telegraph Hill drinking scotch and watching sunset, buy even a Captain can’t always get what he wants. You see, this is a part of the City I have been put in charge of, it falls on me to do what I have to do to protect and defend this part of town. Day and night, three hundred and sixty five days of the year— what happens out there on my streets is on me. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”

The Lieutenant nods his head affirmatively having not heard truer words or a more coherent explanation of how the world works according to the San Francisco Police Department.

I think one of us tried mustering the courage to get a word in edgewise. The Captain raised his hand,  “hold your horses,” he said, “wait just a minute, you’ll get your turn.” The Captain would let us speak just as soon as he has had time to complete his thought.

Our dapper Captain his shirt pressed, badge polished, possessed a swarthy olive complexion that displayed patches of enthusiastic fits of red as his circulation increased. Nobody could not notice pitch black hair and the touch of grey at his temples. “It is a beautiful day. Fisherman’s Wharf is packed. People visiting the City, pedestrians are trying to walk down the sidewalk. Now, first thing I notice is this musician. He’s got a guitar, guitar case in front of him, someone is going to break their neck tripping over the thing but never mind our musician is playing music. I like music, my lieutenant likes music— everybody loves music, who doesn’t love music?” He wasn’t asking a question. “But, the musician is playing music in a doorway, and this is a doorway to the entrance of a business, a business I might add that pays business taxes for the pleasure of being engaged in commerce here in this great city. Now, this musician he’s blocking the door and people cannot get in and cannot get out of this establishment on account of the musician and his crowd blocking the doorway because of his playing music. You get the picture? This is something I do not like to see,  even though I love music as much as anyone, who doesn’t love music?” He plays cool again and wants to make another point. “So, we continue driving down the street. I’m a little upset, you’d be upset, but you’re not me, thank god for that, so I tell my lieutenant that let’s continue, let’s continue to keep an open mind, let’s go down the street and take a look at any further situations. Me and my lieutenant, we want the big picture, we want to know what’s going on. I mean the point I’m trying to make is that I have an open mind, maybe I do not understand, maybe there might be a simple explanation for the circumstances of the musician having to locate in a doorway. I don’t know. So far nobody has been able to explain these things to me. Let’s keep going, let’s find out what else there is to see. So, we drive a little further and we see a mime. OK? He is miming. I ask the Lieutenant to stop so we may enjoy his show. I don’t know. He thinks he’s funny, the mime is miming as I said and I guess, best anyone can tell, his act is supposed to mock people walking by while he is standing still. Then, when someone walks by he starts moving and he starts imitating people that are trying to walk by, to me it was more like he was mocking the pedestrians trying to pass by, he was making fun of the visitors that have come to our city, in my opinion he is insulting these people. I’d go so far as to say he was victimizing these innocent. He was not my idea of funny. Nothing about his act appealed to me. All I can tell you is that I am disheartened by what I see. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”

The Lieutenant rubber faced, also Italian frowns in agreement with his precinct Captain.

“I ask my Lieutenant to go ahead, let’s keep going, let’s see what else we can see. We drive a little further until I see this crowd of pedestrians, and they are spilling out off the sidewalk onto the roadway, as they cannot get around, their egress is completely impeded. There was an unsafe situation right there before my very eyes. Someone could get hurt. Pedestrians belong on sidewalks not spilling out on the street. I ask the Lieutenant to stop. We are discussing the unsafe situation we are witnessing. I don’t even know what this street performer is even supposed to be doing. This entertainer he’s saying something to the crowd. We cannot make out what he has on his mind, it is impossible for us to see there are so many people between us and this street performer.” The Captain’s voice rises. “Then, next thing I know this street performer, he is up in the air balancing on some kind of gizmo he lights up some torches, we got an open fire on my sidewalks, we got a violation right there, and then this street performer I don’t know where it even came from but he puts a live chicken on top of his head and then so help me God this completely out of control individual starts fire juggling for the crowd.”

The Captain looking down mindlessly thumbing the file on his desk lost in thought. It was a moment before he could find the words. “One thing I will never allow is for anyone to come into my neighborhood and think for one second they can get away with lighting three fire torches and then juggle those torches while balancing a chicken on his head.”

ooh-Pin-Her Part Tree

“My flight up to San Francisco was a little bumpy, but the water landing was very smooth. That was a real professional pilot flying that plane…”

More Northwest

Work pulled my low-budget quest for entertainment immortality as far as ten degrees latitude north of San Francisco. After playing a noontime date I made a turn and put some south backtracking down the interstate. After a rough and tumble forgettable “nooner” at South Seattle Community College it was all I could do to keep my head above water. My self-confidence was in tatters. After threading my way south on Interstate 5 in heavy commerce laden traffic I veered off to the east taking a twisting road paralleling the Cowlitz River. I was back out on the road where a down in the self-esteem department showman could use road miles to regain his footing.

Mount St. Helens had been rumbling— an active volcano might be something to see. Rain was predicted as ever to continue without letup. As the crow flies I was twelve miles north of a mountain sized time bomb you would never know was even there.

Highway 12 would take me over the Cascades to Yakima. My next dates were in Cheney, Pullman and Moscow. On the eastern slope rain was forecast to ease up. Like that clouds dissipated— sunshine cheered the weary soloist. There was hope after all.

Tracks of my Years

I traveled through brush-steppe country crossing the Columbia River at the Vernita Bridge. Here of all things in a state famous for its lumber was a treeless landscape. Driving east irrigation pivots dotted the rolling barrens. The town of Othello was allotted less physical endearment than most other remote farm communities. Town folk were more likely here because they were born here. Home— I have come to believe is karmic. Pilgrim showmen are taught about the peril of permanent residency in their first thousand outbound miles.

I set up out on the lawn for a “nooner” in front of the student union building at Eastern Washington State College. I had drawn an audience of three hundred, a sizable potentially rollicking horde for a no-name small-time traveling juggler with not much more than a performing dog and dozen goldfish. The show was designed to catch, build and hold a crowd of undergraduates. Then there were laughs. Applause points ranged to respectable— not more.

At Evergreen State in Olympia my noontime show had been not as big but turned out to be more energetic. I am 29 years old. My sixty minutes remained a work-in-progress. After most of a decade of trying to figure this thing out I had to face up to the fact there remained much to be done.

At the end the show in Cheney a friend of the “circus” waving to me during my one hour set rushed forward at the end thrilled by my chance appearance at her school. Two fated talker’s is what joined up—a couple of ear chewers. I’d first come to know my relocated friend from dates I played in Fresno while out on my first national tour. In 1974 I was then a traveling performer with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus. Her home had been a stopover where her parents three-ring sized hospitality was teased as the ultimate soft spot on an otherwise austere list of one day stands. Augie, her father, by unanimous consent had long been enshrined the maker of the world’s greatest pancakes. Each hotcake was ‘from scratch made batter’—  an example and temple to the  high griddle arts. With outsized pride Augie’s daughter could barely contain her excitement waiting for the show to be over. After she would commenced to behave exactly as her family had trained her to. Having grown up around sawdust, tent poles and canvas she had literally been reared by parents that taught there was virtue in helping to care for the world’s smallest circus. Not lending a hand to strike the rigging and loading out would be  unforgivable. Familiar generosity silenced my pangs of isolation. Here was an example of how distance amplifies companionship. A traveling one man entertainer, go for broke type, was a particular kind of comic telegram and messenger in this era. Showmen arrive to far off corners carrying eyewitness insights into the lives of other people and remote hard to get to places. My Fresno friend demanded we depart immediately and on her dime for the nearby pizza parlor where we would burn the building down by force of fever pitched family informed comradery.

A week and half earlier in Olympia I had met a baker. In this instance I’d stayed up all night making bread with a sleep deprived crew of longhaired bandana wearing misfits. Helping at the bakery created a sense of my belonging to something all Cascade, Olympic peninsula and Northwest. I wasn’t simply passing through, I was a welcomed part of the vital enterprise of making this a better world by preparing fresh baked bread here on the southern tip of the Puget Sound.

Weeks before in Eugene I’d fallen into a clever back and forth with a blue eyed reddish blonde ruddy cheeked girl-woman who had recently returned by sailboat with her family after an eight year circumnavigation. There were practical concerns expressed whether she would manage to be happy living in one place now or ever. Fending off the peril of  maturity in honor of her free spirit she’d of liked to have dropped everything— joined up and taken off on tour with this jury rigged traveling enterprise. A narrow bunk didn’t worry her, she had put up with less. Touring would have been an easy and more familiar path. Going harbor to harbor, town to town could be an appealing form of land-yachting. Wanting to drop everything and run off on impulse with a kind of a sailor you didn’t even know the first thing about was not an uncommon desire.

Local actors from the theater program at Centralia Community College held a post- performance gathering in my honor. Together we danced, drank wine and exchanged tall tales about the fated struggles stand-ins, bit players and movie stars confront on their road to fame, gossip and paparazzi ruin.

Western Rangeland Touring

I had been out on the road six weeks. The hour long set had been much changed by the hundreds of sidewalk shows in San Francisco. New and better material was the result. Next goal on my infinite to-do-never-finished list was putting my best thirty minutes together. Whether it was sixty minutes, thirty or fifteen each show’s length was its own puzzle demanding its own particular answers. A showman among many pieces of hard earned wisdom becomes with more first hand stage experience a living breathing compendium of human nature. Being funny is one skill. Having the talent to disguise the lapse of time another. Stage time translates into a deeper seeing into the reins of our common human bonds. More time hustling on the sidewalk back on the streets of San Francisco was indelibly inked into my calendar. Instincts told me I would be all the wiser for doing more shows out there on that hardest of tarmac hard spots.

Mount St. Helens continued making news. US Geological Survey had deployed instruments to measure the mountains increasing bulge. Uncertainty prevailed. The volcano might not erupt at all. Then again there was no predicting how big a volcanic event there could be if this mountain let loose. A National Public Radio station from Spokane reported on the unstable volcano. I was three hundred miles east standing at 2352 feet above sea level, one-thousand miles from San Francisco. I’d traveled north and east as far as this up and coming showman would go. I had been holding up out here in the rough and tumble, but still there I stood between the places I had been and the places I was going. I gave in and amused my wanting off the road and allowed my mind the pleasure of anticipating my return.

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Opener… Street Theater 1980

This is opening rewritten fragment to longer piece… about 800 words of 9000.

Desk

“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.

Devilstick

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.

edited red star

Landscape Lending Library

Road

Tomorrow would be all tap dancing, feather boas and spangled showgirls

Eight weeks was in my rearview mirror. Homeward bound I ate up the last miles of two lane blacktop. Topping off my emptiness pangs, I soaked up the sweeping horizons of blue sky, white clouds, green sage and red soils. Empty high desert sated my last remaining solo thirst to be out in the wide open western rangelands. I broached my worries to ghosts of past touring partners. Max Frobe, Nick Weber and Steve Aveson I invited them into the silence to be here and whisper to my spirit. I praised the hands of all the good souls that had helped me find my way. In another half day of chasing this painted white striped line I would be folded back into my home-ground. My inner affairs were confronted with greater clarity out on the open range. I was unbridled and free to run with all the other wild horses. I could feel the harmonizing link to my wilderness. I was passing through landscapes lending library. I had fended off the demon fear of failure. I had filled my days with purpose. My pickup truck engine hummed. A much sought after next piece of my life puzzle was on the other side of the windshield. Today was good. Tomorrow would be all tap dancing, feather boas and spangled showgirls.

Great Basin One

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Slogging Dog Days of Winter

staircase b and w

Uphill Staircase Easement from Winter

I’ve never been a January man. The slog through the dog days of this season is for another kind. I’m from California. We do facelifts, tennis and brunch on the rear sundeck.

My week in Arizona cheered my seasonal affective disorder for a week. I’m back here in this paltry excuse for a sunny day. “Get over it…” I’ve tried. My mother said I was incurable.

Much of my living has been made hustling in outdoor venues. When it rains I’m not working. When it blows I’m done. When its cold nobody will stick around. Lousy weather will land this hapless rogue on ropes of the penniless poorhouse of busking fame.

It isn’t so much seasonal affective disorder as rational fungible illiquidity dis-ease. Of course by now I’ve piled together enough symbolic firewood to make my way to one more spring time or three or four. The mood is more habit I can’t quite convince myself to break.

I vanquish the demon moods with joke writing, juggling workouts and leisurely hours idled away perusing possible June routing options. Los Angeles to Albuquerque. Rendezvous with wife and slow roll north through Colorado’s high country. Fort Collins for street shows, Thermopolis for hot springing, Lethbridge of necessity and Edmonton because I want to.

By the time June is here I will be in full denial about the rot gut bottom days of January. I’ll be out in a field singing with the other birds of play. Fingering me for winter gloom by then is like trying to land a punch against Muhammad Ali. It’s all floating, butterflies and bees by then.

trees with no leaves

Walking with the Dead of Winter

My hands are cold. The leafless trees mock me, long underwear and a brisk sail across the bay is meted out as recreational punishment. There is in this corner of my own making. There is no sympathy, no compassion, no shoulder to lean on. Suck it up, this is that famous now you’ve heard so much about, this is earth in all her splendor. Get up off your sorry ass and dance…

bassett hound

Takes One to Know One…

I think I’ll curl up under a blanket and read a book, sip tea wait for dusk and pine for longer days. I only wish others could understand. None of you will. I know. This is seasonal affective solitude. I am left to reckon with this phantom icy demon alone. It is my curse to have been born in California. Only the price of real estate evokes even a glimmer of understanding. This other matter is all nonsense. I know. I will resume my silence now.

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Sidewalk Show Exposé

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Ghirardelli Square circa 2001

Street theater is about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes 4, 4 turns into 8; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Survivors of this hustle have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd and how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt and perform to live another day, execution is 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 or sit back down, life is short.

Home field advantage is a term of art meaning playing the same space. Fine tuning the act is having a plan when the chimes to the courtyard clock ring. The sharpest tacks in the hunt for an audience can preplan then unload the perfectly timed zinger. Play your hand swift and sure, be on your toes, don’t get caught, stay loose, fresh, act quick while you possess the advantage of surprise. Time is of the essence.

Street performers are premeditated—  Glance around, count bodies— are they older, younger, can you smell the money in the crowd? Intuit mood, develop a game theory— come to the arena of street with a launch strategy. When starting a show make damn sure that you start your show. Is it a slow build or a quick start? Does it feel like you are pulling teeth? Are you slaying? Killing? Shooting fish in a barrel? Time tested material displays prowess. Audiences find a performer’s deft grip reassuring. Your job is to be dead certain they’re buying what you’re selling.

Buskers know the score, the headlines, front page, chess puzzle and constant disappointment of not being listed in the entertainment section. The winners in our world are lauded, the rest is fodder for the comic cannons. What’s the same, what’s different, what’s going on? Maybe it isn’t the size of your audience but it is the type. Maybe there are more children, more teens, or elderly. Read and react. If you can’t figure people out, you’re having an off day, out of rhythm? Pack it in. Do yourself and everyone else a favor, go to the tanning salon.

Offseason I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each day I set out to do ten sets, and depending upon flow and energy settled on at least 8. The real trick was squeezing the 8 shows into an efficient 3 hour work day. You try shorter, try longer but the best money was earned nailing the finale before the fifteen minute mark.

Blog Post Pic One

Closer was a Jack Russell Terrier 

With tourist season in full swing from Memorial Day to Labor Day the sidewalk performers worked full time— 5 or 6 days on, 1 or 2 off. Strike while the iron is hot. By the end of that first summer I’d cranked out five-hundred shows. Once peak season ended I dialed back to 3 days per week again. I’d squirreled away more than half my summers take. I’d nurse my nest egg, make ends meet, and if I’d survived take another run at the big bucks next summer. Sidewalk showmanship is all about staying in the big game of betting everything or going broke trying.

Edited Red Star

Sidewalk Show

Scan_Pic0048

Winnipeg 1987

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.

in the round

Small Crowd

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.

2005D 015

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.

Edited Red Star