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Busking in Boston


I wrote this story a few years ago to describe my experience as a busker in Boston’s T subway stations:

Maybe this bizarre desire to put myself in front of people I don’t know and perform stems from something in my childhood. Like when I used to dress up in costumes consisting of green tights (with tighty whiteys over them, of course), flippers, snorkel and mask, and a belt with a rubber knife in it and go downstairs when my parents had parties and entertained the crowd.

I don’t know who can be credited or blamed for suggesting that I do it. Maybe I even came up with the idea myself. All I know is that within a month of living in Boston, I was considering being a subway performer. I heard guys doodling away on their clarinets in the T stations and I had seen their hats overflowing with cash. I figured I could do it. I play guitar…and I make noises akin to singing…why not try it?

In order to play in a subway, I found out, one must obtain a subway performance permit. This of course requires a performer to jump through a couple hoops made of red tape, travel to the farthest reaches of Boston in person, hand the MBTA your application, your photo, and a piece of mail proving you’re not homeless, and then (of course) give them a money order for $25. The distance and bureaucratic BS might have dissuaded some, but I was determined. So I went, and I filled out many forms. They promptly mailed me a piece of plastic that I attach to myself while playing.

So after getting my permit and chickening out for a week, I finally decided it was time to “sack up” or “grow a pair” (as my roommates put it) and try to earn my $25 back. On Monday, Nov 8, 2004 I set my sites on Government Center at 5pm rush hour, when business men and women were leaving work. They needed someone to serenade them. I arrived with my guitar in tow, dressed in my best brown outfit (cause it matches the guitar) and after wandering around for a while, building up courage, I set up shop behind the Dunkin Donuts kiosk in the middle of the station. In front of me were about 25 people waiting for the green line outbound, just wanting to go home.

I opened the guitar case and removed my weapon of mass distraction, making sure to leave my case open for spare $5 bills that might fall into it. I stood there for a minute, pretending to tune up, while I was actually crapping my pants. After a couple minutes of internal pep-talks I figured, “Now’s as good a time as any.” I capoed the 3rd fret, took a breath, and ripped into “Come Pick Me Up” by Ryan Adams, beginning what was to be a full-fledged assault on the unsuspecting mass’s ears.

As soon as I started singing everyone turned around and looked at me with faces of bewilderment and intrigue. Then they turned back to the tracks and I imagined that they were listening, eyes closed, humming to themselves in quiet rapture. In spite of shaky hands and wavering voice, I felt good. I expected to have 10 bucks by the time this song was over. After the second verse the B train to Boston College arrived, screeching to a halt in front of me. I was singing as loud as possible, trying to compete with the sound of several tons of steel trying to stop with un-oiled brakes. The people reluctantly boarded the train, hoping I would be back to play for them again another day. “I wish I could,” I sang. The train left and everyone was gone, and I looked down into my open guitar case and saw only black felt. Where was the green! The silver! The bronze? Nothing. Not even a Canadian coin. I stopped right in the middle of that damn song and picked up my case.

“Where do the subway performers play in here?” I asked an MBTA employee.
“Right where you were standing,” he replied. He must have been enjoying the performance.
“Tough crowd over there,” I said.
“Yeah, well, they’re used to people over there,” he replied, as though I were playing in an old folks home where they might get cranky if I played somewhere different than usual.

So I returned to my spot, opened my case again, and decided I would not give up until I could at least pay my fare back home ($0.90). So how was I going to make more money? Maybe starting off with a song that has multiple F words, lines like “screw all my friends, they’re all full of shit,” and a very accusatory tone was not the best idea. So next I decided to play something sweeter (like Wilco’s “Say You Miss Me”) and as I did my audience began to replenish itself. Some might say they came because that’s where they had to go to wait for the train, but I knew they came because they heard my refreshing “ooh-hoo-hoo’s” and the repeated refrain “Baby say I miss you…just say you miss me too.” Still, in spite of there being at least 75 people in front of me with beautiful peacoats and apparently plenty of money to throw around, not a single cent had fallen into my gaping case.

Perhaps “Say You Miss Me” was too saccharine for this crowd of calcified hearts. So next I decided to let them know a little bit about myself through a performance of Loudon Wainwright III’s “One Man Guy,” which if taken the wrong way could raise some questions about which team I’m playing for. In fact, it did prompt one balding man to ask me, “What’s that mean, you’re a one man guy?” as he jogged towards the train without waiting for an answer. “It means what it says,” I shouted after him. I was becoming a cryptic and gritty, road-hardened performer, yet still I was not making any money.

After a couple more alt-country clunkers I hit upon the song that would not only earn me my first dollar, but would eventually become my most lucrative number: Ryan Adams’ “My Winding Wheel.” (At this point you might be thinking that I’m just some hack who doesn’t have any originals and only plays covers. And yes, that would be true.) Of course, the biggest money maker had to be the song that requires an open G tuning where I have to spend 2 minutes before and after the song messing around with the tuning pegs, losing all momentum. But the very first time I played it, in the middle of the song, in mid-strum, a shy man held out a dollar bill, extending his arm as far away from his body as possible, as if I was the plague or something worse. He held the bill there until I was ready to take it. I halted immediately. Snatch! “Thanks.” I dropped the bill into my case and when it hit the bottom it made this sound: CHA-CHING…and I was off.

From there the dough started rolling in. It was only then that I realized I should have put some money in the case to start off with because people are more likely to give you money if that’s what they think they’re supposed to do. One might assume that if a passerby saw a lot of money in a performer’s hat that he would think “this guy has enough dough already, I don’t need to contribute.” In fact, this passerby thinks the converse: “I don’t want to be left out, I better give this guy a dollar…no wait, I’ll give him two just to outdo the rest.”

And let me tell you, there were a lot of men who agreed that “Damn Sam, do they love a woman that rains” and a whole lot of women (and a dude or two) who wanted to “be my winding wheel.” My guitar case was becoming an ocean of curling green waves and white foam resembling dead presidents, sprinkled with little silver beacons and rusty buoys. One man who was inexplicably wearing headphones told me in a thick Eastern European accent that I was “thee best singer een Boston.” Yes, things were going well, and I was just hitting my stride as rush hour was reaching its zenith. I was so excited, I didn’t see him coming until it was too late.

In the middle of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” I glanced to my left and he was already upon me. I’m surprised I didn’t smell him approaching. This poor guy was a full-fledged hobo in the most classic sense of the word: greasy fingers, matted beard, sagging eyelids, and so much bourbon on his breath that I think his inebriation had become comparable to the rain cycle and he was perpetually feeding his drunkenness on his own fumes. I became very self-conscious that I was singing a song about a vagabond. The feeling wouldn’t last long though because he came right up and started talking to me in the middle of the song.

He could barely keep his eyes open and he was staggering around like he was on a jerky bus, except he was on solid ground. After some small talk which I didn’t really understand (his voice was a low rumble, like someone gargling gravel), he told me about the kind of music that he liked.

“I go way back for music…born in the 50s….brought up in the 70s….I won’t say his name cause he just died, rest his soul…(the ellipses represent incomprehensible mumbling)…yeah, I go back there for music…I may be a drunk but I know what I’m talking about.”

He then began a rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that can only be described as….well, I surprised myself with my ability to hold in laughter. His voice was grittier than Louis Armstrong’s and lower than Johnny Cash’s and he pretty much only had two notes, the higher of which he hit on the chorus of Country Roads…”take me home, to the place, I be-loooong.” As he was singing “belong” he went into his upper register, which was actually only a high pitched wheezing sound. No tone, only air. He said, “I just need to warm it up…I’m a professional singer you know.”

Not only was this man a drunk, he was a liar as well.

We had about ten more minutes of conversation in which he told me about his “boys” that he plays with over at the Park Street Station and about how he toured all over the country playing with the biggest names. I told him he should go get his band from Park St and bring them over for a jam, but he didn’t fall for my trick. He was more suspicious of me after that. Then we sang Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” together and he was getting pretty antsy in his pantsies while I was working out the chords. He tried to show me how to do it, but I didn’t really want him to touch the guitar, so I said, “no, I’ll hold onto it.”
“I’m not gonna take it.”
“I know,” I said.
Then he pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and asked me if I wanted it. I said, “No, you hold onto that.”

We sang the song, which was much more suited for his vocal range, and I said, “See, you just needed a warm-up.”
“I need a warm-up?” he said with a cocked eyebrow.
“No, I mean, you just had one.” I was getting scared. After some more staggering and mumbling he finally left.

Now it was time to get back on track and make some more money. I played a couple songs with minimal results and all of a sudden my friend was back….and he was yelling at me, “I was all the way down there, couldn’t hear a damn thing, you need to be louder….give it to ’em!” So I brought out “Come Pick Me Up” again and yelled the lyrics as loud as I could. “Louder….More,” he shouted as he danced around in front of me like he was conducting a huge orchestra. He turned around and entreated the listeners to pay me, “Give this kid a dime,” he shouted, “he’s working hard!” To set a good example he threw some of his own change into my case. When I got to the part with the bad words I made sure to sing them real loud. Boy did that get him going. I don’t know if it made him mad or if he thought it was inappropriate or what, but he was scampering around and yelling even louder. The audience was laughing, I was laughing, I don’t know what was going on. When the song finished he gave me a standing ovation. Nobody else clapped. I appreciated his enthusiasm.

Next he wanted me to play some Elvis. He asked for a specific song but I couldn’t understand what he said so I started playing “Hound Dog.”
“No, …ailhouse rock,” he said with a hiccup.
“Oh, ok.” As I hit the first “duh-dum” two cops walked up.
“Alright buddy, go upstairs and get some air. Come on.”

My friend didn’t have to be told twice. He left quickly and quietly as if this sort of thing happened all the time.

I played a little while longer (uneventfully) until I started to get hungry. I finished a song as a B train was approaching, threw my guitar in the case on top of my loot, and headed for home. When I got there I took out the guitar and counted my earnings. Eight dollars and fifty-three cents.

No, I must have made a mistake. I demanded a recount.

$8.53. What! What? There had to have been more. Alas….there wasn’t. I had worked for two hours at an approximate rate of $4.27 / hour.

Now, I don’t want to sound too harsh on the bum. I had fun talking to him, but he did interrupt my playing at the busiest time of the night. Sure, he gave me a couple nickels and a good story to tell, but he also gave me the creeps. Just to give an idea of how much he interfered with business: I returned to Gov Center two weeks later and in 2 hours I made $26.98, without his help. But maybe the difference in earnings was because I performed on a Friday instead of a Monday, or I played better and I had more songs, or maybe it was because in the 20 minutes that I talked to that guy, he taught me everything he knew about the business.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    03|20|12 4:13 pm

    But wanna input that you have a very decent web site, I like the style it actually stands out.

  2. Leigh permalink
    04|06|12 5:23 pm

    Absolutely hilarious and well written! Keep up the playing, the blogging, the busking, and rocking out with drunk people!


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