I saw Darth Vader near the Inner Harbour today, a sure sign that spring is approaching. A few hardy buskers keep going through the dark days of winter in Victoria, but street performers like Darth generally keep a low profile until the weather gets warmer.
It requires a certain bravura to dress up like Darth Vader, hoping that passersby find you amusing and creative enough to throw a few coins your way. It’s never easy to put yourself out there as a performer at the best of times, let alone in front of a potentially hostile audience. But Darth comes back year after year, or at least somebody in a Darth costume does, so he must have found a way to make it work.
I got my busking licence this past summer. I’m a long-time pianist but have lately taken up the accordion with near-manic enthusiasm. (Who knew?) Accordions suit being played outside. I found myself with some free time last summer, and it all just came together in my head.
I pictured myself settling into a bright little corner somewhere downtown on a beautiful summer day, making music in the sunshine and earning pocket change to boot. I imagined the music lifting people’s spirits as they walked by, them smiling as they passed. What’s not to like about that?
Well, a few things, as it turns out. The worst — the thing that caught me by complete surprise — was the look on some people’s faces as they walked by me as I played. I recognized the look: Pity. They felt sorry for me. Here I was, thinking of myself as a happy soul sharing music with the world, and they were seeing me as a sad middle-aged woman reduced to begging on the street.
Not everybody gave me that vibe, of course. Not even most. But you only need one Pity Stare a day to weird you out, let me tell you. One day I’ll have to ask Darth if it ever happens to him.
All the buskers will tell you that Government Street is the place to be; even the city licensing officials guided me in that direction when I paid my $10 for the right to busk. But I didn’t have the nerve for that many passersby at first, and instead hung out at strange corners where buskers are almost never found: The corner of Fort and Wharf street; the bottom of Courtney; an inconspicuous part of Bastion Square. You don’t make any kind of money in places like that – I’d be lucky if I got $8 in an hour and a half – but at least it was a gentler introduction to public performance.
I eventually made my way up to Government Street — and will never do that again. Things felt wrong from the start, beginning with the stress of trying to figure out where to locate myself where I wouldn’t be interfering with any of the other nearby buskers and street performers. When I finally chose a spot at the corner of Government and Broughton, a sad-eyed young guitarist appeared from out of nowhere to quietly lament that I’d taken his favourite spot.
My instinct was to give him the spot, but he politely declined the offer and said he’d check back later. I set up, played maybe two songs, and then the store owner whose front window I’d inadvertently sat in front of came out to ask me to move farther down the street. I did, played another couple songs, and then realized I could barely hear my own music over the din of buses creeping along Government Street. The diesel fumes were intense.
But there was a moment, even that time. I saw a man across the street, listening to me while he waited for his wife to finish shopping. I’m going to busk again this summer, and it’s because of moments like that — because sometimes you catch a look on somebody’s face, and see that they’re genuinely enjoying your music. On the best days, it feels like you and the people listening to you have stumbled into some magical little moment of happy co-existence. It’s pretty great.
One time, a woman waiting at a stop light did a little dance to the Strauss waltz I was playing. Another time, a man from a mental-health boarding home sat near me for almost an hour as I played in a park by his house. I took my accordion to Vancouver one week when I was working over there and played along the seawall one evening in Stanley Park as the sun went down; two strangers sat close as if they were at a concert, applauding my every song.
Like Darth, look for me out on the street on some warm summer day down the road. Maybe the sound of my accordion will send you dancing up the street. Maybe you’ll just hurry by. Either way, we’ll have a moment. I hope I get to play for you.
“Darth the Busker” jennzebel @ flickr.com. Creative Commons.
“Busking by the Water, Victoria BC” firepile @ flickr.com. Creative Commons.
“Jody Practicing Accordion” Photo Courtesy of Jody Paterson