The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Staging a Phillybusker. July 9, 2008

(Photo by Gustavo Martinez)

 

The streets in south Phillywere steaming with that glowing lick of a lingering mist that could condensate from one second to the other into a thick sudden pour. The brick seemed more like brick and therefore Philly looked more like Phillyeven though I’ve never been in it before. It was 11 in the morning and by the time we were ready to go out the condensation broke into the predictable rain of the day. With the guitar on my back and the day in front of us there was nothing else to do but to walk about until we found a nice morning pub where we could wait for the rain to calm down.

This was the story for about three more bars until we finally ended up in Old City at a nice neighborhood park. The day was humid and the sun was almost out from behind the clouds. This park was a nice gathering place for people reading the NY Times and the most recent Dalai Lama novel/essay. Musicians gathered there tuning their instruments with one another. There was a duo of accordion and guitar in the center, an acoustic guitarist sitting on a bench to the north, another just sort of jamming to himself. It certainly wasn’t the place I would have chosen to busk. It had a nice vibe and all but it was too harmonious for me to interrupt with my loud and angry folk songs and to make any money when musicians where just jamming for free around me. Gustavo thought otherwise and later confessed his choice to be a sort of experiment: throw me in the midst of an ultra comfortable setting and see if it worked. It didn’t. I had lots of fun just feeling Philly surrounding me and knowing, being aware of my being within such a nice context, another city, another adventure, but hey…again in my adventurously stupid way I had driven to Philadelphia with just enough cash for one way tolling. So I needed cash to get back out of the city and I only got 3 bucks. I don’t know if it was the fact that my seeding money was just a few coins or if the fact that I chose to ironically put my credit card along those coins in the guitar case made it a little difficult for the random transient to believe that I really needed their support.

Whatever it was I just did a quick set and decided to walk little bit more to find something more street-like. So Gustavo thought of the perfect place: South Street on south Philly. We headed there but we stopped for a few more pints of beer so that I could be in my element, the element of blatant uninhibited self-confidence. When we arrived at South St. it looked like the perfect place, full of traffic, tourists, bars, coffee shops and noise. We walked for a while looking for a nice spot to set up my case and myself and as we were walking a guy from inside a bar, through an opened window, called me.

– Hey, is that an acoustic guitar you have there?

– Yeah, as a matter of fact it is.

– Wow, come and play us a song, I’ll pay you for a song.

– Sure, no problem, how ’bout $5 dollars… (My blatantly uninhibited self-confidence shouted before I could step in).

– Sure, I’ll give you five bucks, but for that price I wanna hear “Free Bird”.

– Sorry no “Free Bird”, I suck at covers, but I do have some southwestern fried folk from Texas…that should make up for it…

– Ok sure just sing us something.

So I put my case in the floor, opened it, grabbed my guitar and strapped it and quickly began to sing one of my new songs. The vibe was great, they were drunk enough to throw in another five bucks just for the sake of it and people around them began throwing in 1’s. Not too many but a good 3 or 4 in the space of two songs. We were about a block and a half away from the Obama South Philly headquarters and so every time an Obama girl would pass by my patrons would shout for the candidate in a futile effort to get one of them to have a beer with them. It was beautiful. Coming to think of it I guess I should have stayed longer, at least a couple of songs longer but I was so excited that I decided to go look for a busking pitch right away. We did find one but I was only able to play a couple of songs before the cops told me to stop…It was a good day to celebrate my 20th busk.

Day 20

Saturday  

Amount of money made: $17.56

 

P.S. Thanks Gus!

 

Gone With The Wind…however unadvisable this was. March 15, 2008

Filed under: busking,Fridays,street performing — ramonalvarado @ 12:34 am
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From The National Weather Forecast:

STRONG WINDS HAVE DEVELOPED ACROSS THE FORECAST AREA THIS
AFTERNOON AS EXPECTED. WIND SPEEDS SO FAR HAVE REMAINED AT
ADVISORY LEVELS OF 30 TO 4O MPH BUT STILL HAVE A POTENTIAL TO
REACH WARNING LEVELS OF GREATER THAN 40 MPH SUSTAINED BY LATE
AFTERNOON AND EARLY EVENING. WILL KEEP EXISTING HIGH WIND WARNING
IN PLACE UNTIL IT EXPIRES AT 9 PM LOCAL TIME. BLOWING DUST IS
BECOMING THICKER BUT DUE TO THE WESTERLY ORIENTATION OF THE WINDS MAY NOT REDUCE VISIBILITIES TO MUCH LOWER THAN 2 MILES. THE DUST WILL DIMINISH AS THE WINDS DIMINISH THIS EVENING. BUSKERS STAY HOME REGARDLESS OF HOW STUBBORNLY POSITIVE YOUR INCLINATION TO PLAY MAY PICTURE THE DAY. IT WILL BE AWFUL. REPEAT: IT WILL BE AWFUL.

If I could add anything to this, besides the obvious last paragraph, it would go something like: No shit mister satellite!  I just didn’t think that the weather cared much about the before noon/ after noon arbitrariness and when I got out of my house it was still bearable.  Once I crossed the border there was no lazy breeze like on wednesday but rather just a full blown garbage and dust gust. I still tried it for some reason, or lack thereof, actually. It was awful. My guitar case kept shutting closed, the lucky dollar kept threatening to escape into the atmosphere and people, like the many random garbage items, just passed flying by. Even behind their  rather tight squints I could read their estranged gaze saying to me: “WTF are you doing here, didn’t you read the weather report?”- No, I didn’t but I could tell you more or less what it said.

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Day 19

Friday

Amount of money made: $ .5 cents 😦

Time played: 2 songs

Exchange rate: does it really matter?

 

Not quite yet… January 10, 2008

Filed under: busking,street performing,Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 1:34 am
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tin tanmision de guadalupe

So I waited all day at home yesterday for the owner of that guitar to arrive, I had my mind set. I woke up very early, made myself a cup of coffee, scribbled down a full set of ten or 11 songs and played it full volume in the kitchen. After finishing it up with a bang I released the strap from the guitar (that much is mine), sat the guitar in my tripod and dutifully cleaned it with some kind of weird wood oil that we use in furniture. I also retuned it properly with that 500 lb tuner of mine, because I know nobody won’t once she’s home. In other words I petted the guitar with that condescending cloth of prideful deliverance that says “here, you can have it back but she’ll never be the same.” I mean I could almost see myself saying, when the time to give it up came, “she’ll come back to me the second you neglect her” but that would be a little too freaky considering the fact that she‘s actually an it and has no life of its own apart from my melodramatic imagination. Anyway so I just decided not to play it all throughout the day and instead invest all that time practicing with my Turkish drum. I tuned it, cleaned it, and practiced for hours between breakfast and lunch banging along really festive Middle Eastern and Eastern European music, I was actually excited about the whole instrument change and stuff but, you guessed it, the guitar owner didn’t show up.

Now, I know that she could drop by any time so I’m still going to have that drum ready. Nevertheless I decided to go busking today with the guitar. After two weeks without doing so I was nervous again. I walked around towards the Velarde area which I had come to like quite a lot, but the PA systems were just overwhelming, so I just returned towards the museum and did my set there twice. It was quite a regular day except for the fact that I got tired pretty soon. I did walked around after I finished up busking and by the time I walked back towards Juarez avenue to walk it up to the bridge I saw that the accordion and cup duo were back playing at the corner of the museum. I thought that was cool, I thought they had given up. 

having fun

After changing my pesos for dollars a lady stopped me and told me that I was a really good singer and that she likes to see me outside the museum, she congratulated me and wished me luck, that was actually pretty cool. 

Day 16

Wednesday

Amount of money made: $8.11

Time played: 1h 2om

Exchange rate: 10.96 pesos/dollar

                      

 

Sniff, sniff…pum taca pum. January 8, 2008

Filed under: busking — ramonalvarado @ 1:22 am
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I knew this day would come and even though it wasn’t a surprise it still slapped me hard. I was actually aware of slightly overstepping or nonchalantly abusing the situation by overlooking the issue all this time, but I had a purpose and purposes have this rare ability to bestow anybody’s criteria or convictions with what seems to be an ideal elasticity. Whether it is a matter of torture and bloodshed, like in a purist revolution of some sort, or some type of illegality like stealing a car to get to Frisco because you have a great novel to write, if you have a purpose, people will say: “well, at least he/she’s doing something.” The elasticity metaphor can be extended here a little bit more for it is the case that a stressed elastic body will eventually give in by either wearing its original integrity and resistance out or by breaking. In other words being elastic gets tiring. People will eventually come to terms and they’ll begin realizing that you are a rootless and oppressive dictator or just another romantically driven thief that can bullshit with style or, as it is my case, just somebody who has kept a guitar a little longer than expected. And so the call came. I overheard because the speaker in the phone was too loud and so before the message was given to me I was left staring blankly into the void in a limbo between the actual and the possible and, frankly, quite saddened. They’ll be picking it up tomorrow and I’ll be…well: guitarless to say the least. And well, to say the most: down, idle and occasionally even wildly distraught.

I’ve been thinking about the busking a great deal. I was to restart precisely tomorrow and now I have to rethink the whole deal. I guess I can stop and wait a few weeks so that I can buy myself an extremely inexpensive acoustic guitar that suits that capo I got for the holidays. Or (insert visuals of a nervous but exited smirk) I can try to busk in the meantime with another instrument and see how that works. I know I can’t move that 1974 Wurlitzer organ even an inch, so that is out of the question.  Besides, I don’t know how to play it, I use it as a tuner. But besides the organ, a drum set and a violin we also own a little Turkish drum that I purchased in Istanbul and which used to accompany me in my hitch-hiking trips through central Mexico. I also busked with it a few times in Juarez when I was younger, I can try it again. I guess it’ll take me maybe three or four days to come up with at least a few decent patterns so that I don’t drive people crazy with the same drum beat for hours. Wish me luck. Or wish me a guitar, any will do.

2nd spotsotoulisesimg_0114.jpgimg_0079.jpg

 I just know she’ll miss it.