Bard of a Different Feather
Interview with Bernice Gordon
News for October
Break Out the Colored Pencils
Busking in Cyberland Part One: A Personal Retrospectiveby Deirdre M. Murphy
It was the early 1990s, and I was going through a divorce, and trying very hard to be frugal. Still, getting out is important. I really needed to be doing something other than work and brooding on the life I'd been promised, and that wasn't happening, wasn't going to happen, and there was nothing I could do to salvage it.
Traveling on the El one day (actually, I was in one of the large stations, walking from the El to transfer to a bus) I heard something -- live music. The bright tones of the hammered dulcimer were not coming from anyone's radio. Don't ask me how I knew it was live; all I can say is that from the shape of the sound, it was obvious. It transformed the space. Never mind the dozens of people rushing by, ignoring it, I had to go find it. And when I did, there was a musician, with a hammered dulcimer, just as I'd been sure there would be. And though I couldn't stay around long to listen, it transformed my day.
A week or so later, I thought, "I could do that." Well, not the hammered dulcimer part; I've never owned one of those, though I'd like to. But I play the autoharp. And so, after work, I went down into the subway, opened the autoharp case, and did my thing.
Now, I'd been riding the El (which, in Chicago, is also at times a subway; the trains follow the tracks up and down) for years. I knew what it felt like, how people behaved toward me, and so on. It felt crowded and lonely, routine and risky all at once. You kept your eye or your arm on your purse, and kept it closed.
But when I was standing there with my autoharp, and the case in front of me (with some seed money in it, laying there right out in the open), it all changed. Sure, there were teenage boys who laughed at my folk music, but there were also teenage boys who, when I complimented the beautiful, waist-long hair of one of the group, stopped, turned around, and all emptied their pockets, one even giving me his lucky 50-cent piece, to wish me luck.
And the street people -- their behavior changed too; not only did they stop and listen, and sometime throw me a precious dime or two, but they treated me differently. I felt welcomed, accepted -- and safer than I have ever before or since in that setting. They were the first to retrieve the contents of my case if a careless commuter kicked it, and replace the cash safely inside, returning the coins to their position on top of the paper money to keep the wind of the trains from blowing my earnings away.
And after a while, even if you aren't good at reading people, when playing songs you have thoroughly memorized you realize that busking is very much a social interaction, and that playing for different people, though they are equally strangers, is different. It amazed me that one person, smiling and nodding and intent on the music could create a rush of harmonious energy, so the music got better -- and easier! -- like a force of nature. There were woman who came up with a small donation, assuring me they were praying for my safety. And there were lurkers too -- you could tell they were listening only by their head nodding slightly, in time, behind the book or newspaper that shielded them from the crowd
And I still wonder at the folks, usually in suits, who would stand off to the side or listen from behind a column, then toss in money when a train was pulling in, and they thought no one would notice.
I didn't get rich, busking, but I got a little bit less poor. And it transformed my world, made it bigger, and friendlier, and safer, in ways I didn't expect and at a time when I really needed those things.
Deirdre M. Murphy (@Wyld_Dandelyon) is a writer of speculative fiction, artist, musician, and cat-lover. She has stories and poetry in venues including MZB's Fantasy Magazine, Crossed Genres, Re-Vamp and With Painted Words, and Family Ties & Torn Skies as well as upcoming in Magicking in Traffic and Subversion. You can find her stories and poetry at http://www.tornworld.net, a world with steam technology, unique temporal anomalies, deadly sea monsters, and mischievous snow-unicorns. Her blog is at http://www.wyld-dandelyon.livejournal.com.
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