How Street People Affect Street Performers (And Vice Versa)
By Kirsten Anderberg (http://www.kirstenanderberg.com
Written November 12, 2011
The list of street characters I have met in my life as a woman street performer (or “busker,” which is another word for street performing), is long and memorable. While street performing, you become a part of the fabric of the streets and are privy to the front row drama that goes on there. You watch “bums” you know get hauled off to Detox, “bag ladies” who just tipped you shortly thereafter yell at walls and homeless teens being preyed on by the sex industry, all in a day’s work singing on a street corner. For the occasional tourist to downtown areas, street people are “colorful,” but to those of us who lived much of our lives on streets, other street people became family.
When I was 18 years old in 1979, I spent every day at the Pike Place Market, street performing, by myself. I knew the local street people due to this. Toby was a 30-something transient who rode the rails all over and would land at the Market sporadically, often selling portraits he would paint. One day I was street performing next to Left Bank Books in the Market when Toby showed up and asked if I wanted to go jam some “outside” music with him. He told me he’d just spent some time at Julliard back east and had learned about music “outside” the norms. I agreed to go with him, while a bit unsure as to what I was agreeing to. He took me through a labyrinth of back hallways and employee elevators to a loft upstairs in the Market, with huge windows overlooking the Puget Sound. We could see the ferries shuffling back and forth from the San Juan Islands, as the sun was getting lower over the Olympic Mountains in the late afternoon.
A red-haired “bum” named Harold, whom I had seen so drunk he could not walk quite often, was sitting in a chair in the loft in front of an upside-down trash can, holding spatulas in his hands like drum sticks! Toby took out a saxophone (and it is unclear whether he’d played one before) and he told me to take out my guitar, then said, “let’s play music!” Toby honked on the saxophone, hanging partially out the large loft windows, while I played something on the guitar as Harold, on the drum trash can kept the beat. It was surreal, for sure. I guess in a worst case scenario Toby could have killed me as a naïve, trusting young girl on the street and him being the older transient but I am glad I did trust Toby that day, and glad I got to play “outside” music with him and Harold. Though it was not my intention, that experience raised my street cred considerably with both of those men. It is plausible that trust is an indicator of respect in street settings.
After the 1989 Santa Cruz earthquake, I received an interesting letter from a homeless man. He wrote me to say how much he used to enjoy listening to me play music on the streets and how he’d taken for granted that he could walk out to the streets and hear me. But after the earthquake ruined the main corridor in downtown Santa Cruz, it was cordoned off and there were no more street performers. He said the hotel he’d been staying at, the Saint George on the Mall, was red-tagged after the quake and they were given 15 minutes to get their belongings out. He said one of the cherished possessions he got out of his hotel room was a cassette tape I had given him of my music. I remember this man from before the quake. He was a photographer and I had given him a free tape and he was going to exchange giving me some pictures of me performing sometime. He apologized for not getting to his part of the deal before I left town and the Mall was roped off due to damage. I never got a creepy vibe off this guy, nor did I ever feel he had any romantic or sexual interest in me. It honestly felt like he just appreciated that I made the streets more homey, more comfortable, more humanized and less cold and heartless, by playing music for free out there. I think of him when I am inspired to go out and busk, still, today.
Then there was “Dancin’ Jack Kelly.” I was singing and playing washboard with a swing band in Seattle at the Market under the clock, in 1983, when all of a sudden, this 90 year old man began to do a soft shoe dance with his cane and it was amazingly professional! It turns out he had been a famous “cane dancer” in the days of vaudeville, and he loved it when buskers played swing music. It was an honor and a badge of pride if Jack Kelly approved of your swing music enough to grace your audience with a free dance performance. I felt especially honored when he would dance to me playing swing music as a solo. He also adored “Swing Bob” McGuire’s music and it was guaranteed that Jack would dance if Bob was playing the music. Jack Kelly’s soft shoe cane dancing was something I’d never seen before and I have not forgotten how fabulous those street interactions with him were.
“Edith, the bag lady,” is another infamous Seattle street institution. Since the late 1970’s, she would tip me with ordinary coins she meticulously cleaned and shined. She lit up when seeing my son and adored him as well. I was shocked when my male street performer friends told me she spit at them and never tipped them. It turns out Edith was not fond of men. I sat next to Edith on the bus once. I asked her if there was anything she hadn’t done yet that she’d like to do. She said she would like to see the Ice Capades but she didn’t think they’d let her in due to her matted hair and appearance. She lamented that they had quit letting her into her own church due to her matted hair which went down the entire length of her back. She also told me she finds guns in dumpsters all the time and takes them to the police. To this day, I consider Edith to be a sort of aunt to me and think “there but by the grace of god, go I.”
One Thanksgiving around 1983, I was in my school bus turned into rolling home in Santa Cruz, CA and I happened to go down the main drag in town, the Pacific Garden Mall. I was on my way to a local Thanksgiving party at a friend’s house. The Mall was desolate. No stores were open, all closed for Thanksgiving, and there were no people anywhere. I saw a lone busker, street performing for no one. It broke my heart. I rolled up, opened my bus door and told him to get in. I had a propane refrigerator and stove in this bus, as well as nice living amenities, such as a couch and table, etc. So I made him a Thanksgiving dinner in my bus and we played music afterwards. It was not sexual, but friendly. I vaguely knew this guy from seeing him in passing but this was the first time I’d talked to him. I remember that Thanksgiving with fondness due to the one on one time I spent with that busker in my bus that year.
Another street scene I have yet to fully wrap my brain around was an encounter I had with “Sonny” at the Pike Place Market, around 1979. Sonny was a tall, handsome American Indian who appeared to be a “bum” at first glance. Due to me being on the streets so often, I knew Sonny drunk and not drunk, which humanized our relationship markedly. One day I was performing at the Market and I had a few people standing around me as an audience as I sang. Sonny showed up, seemed very drunk, and teetered above my guitar case in a manner that made me think he may fall face down into my guitar case at any minute. He leaned in to me and whispered in my ear, “I’m going to make you a lot of money, watch…” He then put on an odd show of sorts, acting very drunk in very close physical proximity to me, and due to my not being unnerved by his behaviors, tips did begin to fly in. All of a sudden the show was not me singing, but me singing while dealing with this seemingly very drunken “bum” dancing around me, nearly losing his balance. It was surreal, as so many of my street experiences have been. It seemed like an insane twist on American Indians dancing for tips from white tourists in the Americanized West during the 1800’s. I offered Sonny money at the set’s end, but he did not want any (though I had given him some of my tip money without his “dance” on other occasions when he asked). That is not an act I would repeat on a daily basis but that one time was really bizarre and I remember it as the day Sonny played a drunk for tourists, basically.
Street performers rub elbows with street people so often that with time, the two categories overlap. I probably became a street performer because I was a homeless teen or a “street person,” already. It is unclear whether I would have chosen that career had other opportunities been available to me, such as attending school and doing music in a protected academic environment with familial support. When I was young and on the streets, people offered to teach me how to sell drugs, how to sell my body for sex, or how to street perform. I chose the latter. To be honest, my interactions with “street people” have been the most touching experiences of my life. I do, most certainly, consider street people, from “bums” and “bag ladies” to buskers and “cane dancers” of old, to be my family and allies on the streets. Perhaps it is due to the spontaneity of the streets that many are lured to street perform in the first place. It is an adventure akin to exploring nature a la John Muir, but in an urban setting. I felt safer on streets because I did know the “regulars,” even as a young girl busking alone. When new “bums” would show up, old “bums” would tell them to leave me alone as I gave them good music. The street has an ecosystem of its own.