The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Triple trip and a kick to top the cake. December 15, 2007

catedralLa morenaza

Because of Tuesday’s result I decided to try a variation. I tried the same spot as Tuesday, in front of the shoe store, and I tried my usual place at the museum but before that I tried another place just a block away from the shoe store. It is the same market area where only pedestrians can walk. To get there I went through the same sea of people that I passed on Tuesday but this day I even got to  see a fight between a drunken  old man and another guy. I guess It wasn’t really a fight but rather a situation where the drunken old man was bothering people to the point where somebody from the crowd had to intervene and throw him to the ground. I have it on video. Why do I have it on video? you might ask. Well because it happened as I had my camera out to picture the huge crowd around the Matachines‘ show in front of the cathedral. Today was the big day for Their Lady of Guadalupe and the crowd was going wild.

mata-chinessoto

The first spot I played at has a couple of cantinas in front and behind it and what I think might be an extremely dilapidated and weird looking brothel too. I know this doesn’t make it sound like a great spot, but one has to consider the crowd, which is the one that makes the vibe of it all. This place is pretty good for busking but it just so happened that as I was setting up my stuff another group of Matachines came to perform a few hundred feet from me, they are really loud with their drums and their thousand nutshells attached to their ankles. The good and the bad thing is that they came and went. I believe it is a ritual amongst merchants in Mexico to bless their markets and so they always dedicate an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe and then have the Matachines perform their ritual dance around the market place to finish up in front of the altar, so this guys were just circling the area back and forth. This gave me a few minutes of silence every now and then. I played my set and got some very good response to it, including a “Qué chingón!!” yell from a transient (which in English means something like “Holy mother of Christ, that rocks!” only with mildly less religiously enthusiastic language).

At the second spot I started my set with a song in spanish and attracted some attention, a few coins and a few stares. By the second song I had a little crowd of  7 or 10 people, one of them dancing. When I finished it up they applauded and then the dancing girl approached me and asked: ” Why are you playing here?” I thought it was a wide open question so I asked her to specify and she said: ” Well, you don’t look poor.” I talked to them for a while and explained that among other things I was also trying to break that precise preconception and that I would be really happy to see more and more actual street performers who were not afraid of that socio-economic stigma. They agreed and said it was a very cool thing, but when I told them that I had to get back to work and continue to play, they thought I was ditching them. I guess it’ll take more time for them to understand that there is indeed some kind of seriousness to the performing side.

I decided to finish the day at the front of the Museum, it’s just a very nice spot and it seems to call me. When I got there I noticed that at the eastern corner of the building a young guy and his sister (I think) were performing. He plays the accordion and she holds a cup. They both look as if they don’t really want to be there and he plays sitting on the sidewalk. I had seen them on Tuesday and gave them a few coins. I thought about them and about approaching them but they look really shy. So what I did was to go all the way to the other corner of the building instead of staying at the entrance so that I wouldn’t bother them or take any possible tip away from them. This was inevitable though, and I felt kind of bad. I thought about approaching them and telling them some tips, because the guy can obviously play the accordion pretty well, but I don’t want to sound condescending or snobbish as if I knew everything by telling them what has worked for me. The girl keeps covering her mouth with the arms of her sweatshirt (as a nervous tic I think) as she puts the Burger King cup on your face when you walk pass them. It seems to me like they are doing everything wrong in terms of making their busking efficient and pleasant, but how do I tell them?

BK brothers

So anyway I went to the complete opposite side of the building, played, got some good money and as I was getting ready to wrap up my last song this weird looking lady came and stopped by my side. She suddenly started to mimic my movements and although it was funny I realized that she wasn’t right in the head. So I wrapped it up and began to pick my stuff up. She looked at me and told me: “Suelte un aguilar ¿o qué?” This is roughly translated to ” Let go of an Aguilar, or what?” At this point I kind of knew what she was aiming for because she kept eyeing my purse and my hat, but I also didn’t understand what she was saying. So I asked: ” Do you mean a song by Antonio Aguilar (A big Norteño musician)? I don’t really do that kind of music, I’m bad with covers” I said. I kept on putting my stuff away, I grabbed my purse (some people would call it a male hand bag but screw that, its a purse) and the money and she approached my guitar and with her extremely long and scary nails she went through each one of the strings. I told her that she should be careful because they could snap and hurt her. She didn’t hear me, she continued and said that she had been in a fight earlier during the day and showed me her nails by putting them very near my face. At this point I kind of understood what she was trying to do so I played stupid. She asked for that Aguilar again and I told her about the famous singer again to which she replied: “No te hagas pendejo (Don’t play stupid), que sueltes una lana (give me some money). At this point I had everything with me and my guitar was behind me so I told her that I wouldn’t, that I had just worked for it and that wasn’t the way to ask anyway. So she slowly walked towards my right side, took a long look at me from top to bottom and then kicked me on the side of the leg. She couldn’t really stand up properly, drunkness I guess, so I barely felt the kick. She quickly took off to bother some other guy selling I don’t know what and I just kept walking towards the bridge. I later thought about that Aguilar thing and recalled that peso coins all have an eagle stamp in the back. The word for eagle in Spanish is águila, so “Aguilar” being a famous last name and having to do with águila, is a slang for money. Now I know and you do too in case you get to see her once upon a border town.

Day 10

Wednesday

Amount of money made: 14.58

Time Played: 1h 55m

Exchange rate: $11.08p/dollar

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Ulises the clown December 6, 2007

Filed under: the people — ramonalvarado @ 5:07 pm
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ulises 

Today I met Ulises who is ,ironically, more of a siren than a travelling god, although one could argue that he was both simultaneously if one saw him busking on a public transportation bus. He just stopped by and started to play with me to later take over the show in a very friendly way. He came by with his guitar and as we talked and played he explained to me that he only does the guitar thing on his free days because he loves music, but that his real job and real passion is clowning and making balloon figurines. He works a little bit further in the downtown area.  He explained to me that there are better spots to busk at, full of local traffic, and he also told me that I should try the public transportation. As he talked he also played many songs. He has an amazing repertoire of Mexican folk music and all other kinds of music, from Italian pop to Mexican rock to norteño stuff.

Ulises doesn’t make his own songs and was really pleased to listen to mine. So we both exchanged a little knowledge, from busker to busker.  As he explained to me some chords for Mexican music and I explained him about loosing the fear to write he kept on playing and I kept on playing so I didn’t really stopped working. The great thing about Ulises is that he was really proud about being a very good clown and a very good balloon artist, and he really was able to transmit, convey, his vibe about the whole business even without his clown suit or his balloons, but with the guitar. You couldn’t walk past Ulises without taking a little part of him with you, such as when your left shoe accidentally manages to step on a freshly tossed piece of chewing gum that has been under the sun for a few minutes. I can only imagine him as a clown with part of his smile shining out those metal teeth for the whole world to see, or at least the whole downtown plaza (he had 3 silver ones). It was a pleasure to meet a real downtown busker for once.

img_0135.jpgimg_0136.jpgjuarez avenue crowd

The day went thus…

Day 8

Amount of money made: $8.73

Border crossing: .65c

Time played: 1h 10 min, plus 30 min with Ulises.

Actual gain: $8.08

Meeting a colleague such as Ulises: just beautiful.

 

Lo-fi logic and hi-fi law. November 22, 2007

Filed under: the people — ramonalvarado @ 1:21 am
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Being the courageous and fearless daredevil that I usually am, I took the gigantic risk today, again, of not bringing enough money to cross the border back into the United States. I only played for a little over an hour but for the first 40 minutes my hat remained completely empty. I didn’t quite freak out but I couldn’t help being constantly distracted by an immense blinking-neon-billboard-like thought in my brain that brilliantly displayed the words “WHAT ARE YOU  GOING TO DO?” while I played. There was a brief moment when I almost decided to leave but remembered that the reason why I wanted to leave was quite paradoxically the same reason why I couldn’t leave. I wasn’t making any money and it took money to cross the bridge back home. I decided to change my attitude, forget about that stupid blinking-neon-billboard-like thought burning my neurons and focus on the music, the posture and on bluffing that Murphy f****er (from Murphy’s law), with a little lo-fi logic scheme, into orchestrating some kind of universal plot that could lead an inconspicuously chosen individual to toss a coin into my hat.

At minute 38 the strategy worked and Murphy fell for the bluff. I’ve often been told that I am a master at acting as if I didn’t care.  I guess all of those nonchalant moments finally paid off with a very well deserved reward of a 5 pesos coin. It’s not like I can say that right after that the money just kept rolling in, but it sort of did, except in coins of a very small denomination. For the next half hour everything was business as usual on a Wednesday afternoon. I finished up, got my stuff, walked towards the money exchange store, got my dollars and walked towards the bridge.

It all seemed so normal, regular, even banal and dreamy, like a day fit to be forgotten. But then I saw something, something so baffling that I haven’t yet been able to categorize in a proper ontological drawer within my brain. The categorizing conundrum has me violently torn between two options: I either saw the most amazingly brilliant and capable or the most ridiculous customs officer in the whole world!  Picture this: I am waiting at the pedestrian line to cross the border, right next to me, on my left, I could see one of the lines for cars through the huge glass windows. As I am standing there staring at the void I notice a customs officer inspecting a car. He was just cautiously looking at some laser-visas belonging to the occupants of such vehicle. The officer then proceeds to go around towards the passenger side of the car, opens the back door and asks something (inaudible to me) of the lady sitting there, the lady complies and I just had to burst out laughing. When the officer said whatever he said to the women, she proceeded to extend her right hand, open palm up, towards the officer. The officer then took her hand, pulled it a little bit closer, grabbed her thumb and put it right next to the fingerprint side of her border-crossing ID and proceeded to compare the two. Not only that but he looked serious too, even frowning as if he had intelligently discovered an ackward whorl of tissue  that was not properly documented on the freaking ink print.  You can say good bye to old-school face/picture comparison now, or any super laser readers and hi-fi magnifiers because we have agent Cyclops on the immigration frontline.  I wonder if while analyzing the thumb and the print he was also  able to foresee part of the Lady’s future: “I can see something ma’am, something weird, I can sense that you have come here for something special. Is it the Mervyns pre-thanksgiving sale?”

heros cartoons, heros cartoon, heros picture, heros pictures, heros image, heros images, heros illustration, heros illustrations

Day 5

Amount of money made: $4. 54

Crossing the border: .65c

Actual gain: $3.89

Time played: 1h 12 min.

 

The evil spot plus some fellow street performers (aren’t we all?) November 13, 2007

img_0063.jpg

 This is the infamous spot right at the corner of the two most Central streets downtown Juarez. As one can observe somebody is using it at the precise moment of my unexpected move with the camera. At this point the subject (whether you decide it to be The Spot or the person performing on it) decides to cover her/itself with an umbrella. So Seña Benina of her… Her art seems to be that of a 19th century Spanish, French or Russian realist novel.

He plays the violin too

I have seen him several times, and he seems to be there forever. The funny thing is that he just constantly bangs at the cords of his instrument, he doesn’t play any particular song or melody or even in any particular style he just bangs, strums and bends the chords for hours. I’ll talk to him one of these days. The first thing I’m going to tell him is going to go something like: “Have you ever heard of a song called Helter Skelter? I think you’d like it”. He has some of what some people would call sparks of genius sometimes, but he’ll never repeat them.

Alacran (native scorpion) man.

Mr. Alacranman is also very frequently seen in different locations of Juarez Avenue, he makes amazing figurines, mainly of alacranes (native kind of scorpions), with minute beads and wire. I think he got his performance together thinking of something Morgan Freeman might be good at: a patient, wise but also deceivingly clever grey head from rural somewhere who speaks to no one about his past…except Morgan Freeman is more of a carving-knife-and-peace-of-halve-carved- tree-branch-carrying  kind of guy. I don’t really see him with little bead bags and wire…

El Mystico

And last but not least, ladies and gentleman, with you, the famous, legendary and profoundly meditative spiritual warrior, mediocre tarot reader during the day but fruitful luchador by night: El Misticooooooooooooooooooo. I love the way Dora and boots are looking at him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2 November 12, 2007

Filed under: the people — ramonalvarado @ 12:52 am
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So, that savage morale stab of $3.23/1.45h didn’t cut it to deter me from coming back. It was a test; I’d pick the same spot just out of spite, to make it tremble in surprise as it felt me walk towards it and eventually on it. I could see the cement sidewalk furiously frowning at my presence as if it knew I had a vendetta to resolve against it. A swirling breeze of dust swept past my ragged clothes as I (insert slow motion effect) made my way towards the spot while revengefully humming the base line of Nancy Sinatra’s This boots were made for walking. And then there I was again, carefully trying to unfold my crooked hat into a recognizable bucket-like shape to toss it in front of me and begin another street practice session. The way I see it is simple: I could be practicing at home; but why would I want to do that?

As one walks pass the border bridge and into Juarez Avenue, the main downtown strip of ciudad Juarez, one encounters many faces of the city: the impossibly busy Milusos (handyman, errand boy, or the one with the thousand uses, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) walking from business to business running errands, the pharmacy employees endlessly yelling from their counters hoping to get you interested in some pills, any pills; one also sees the hundred faces of Wait from inside all the cars in the line to cross towards the United States. Downtown Juarez is a busy place, but it is with great difficulty that one struggles to comprehend what it is that its people are busy doing. But anyway, in the midst of all of those faces one also sees the many faces of the people sitting in the streets asking for money. I know I may have made it sound so easy to find the spot I’ve used this two days, but reality differs unkindly from the account I now tell you. As I made my way towards the end of the strip I kept judging the places where I could settle by the distance it had with other people in the sidewalk business and so I ended up walking the whole length of the strip until I encountered the front of the Museo ex-Aduana (Ex-Customs Office building turned history museum). There I was safe from infringing and stepping on anybody’s socio-economical toes. The length of the walk made me think about how much was I a part of this socio-economical stratum or how much was I an invader. I’m sure there are plenty of coins to go around for everybody, from the native Tarahumara family literally camping on the sidewalk to the accordion player, father of two, to me, but I couldn’t help feeling weird even as a lower class North American student for taking something that might have otherwise ended up in their hand. That guilt banished surprisingly quickly when I realized they made more than I did. It was a good day.

 Day 2  

Amount of money made: $12. 77

Crossing the border: .65 c

Bag of Cheetos: .55 c

Total gain: $11.57 (J)

Time Played: 1 hour 35 minutes

Doing it again: priceless again (in your face stupid spot!).

  

 

So it happened… November 10, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 9:51 pm
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Museo ex Aduana 

 

It had been there for a while, hidden in the back (or in a furtive somewhere) of my mind, I could almost feel it slowly crawling towards my brain muscle structure to suddenly emerge as an actual action when the time, or the need, was exact. And so it happened on Thursday as I stood there, literally just stood and stared there. 17 minutes after Government class, 13 to 20 hours before our paychecks, and 5 and a half hours before having to drive to work, I just stood and stared there in the living room. I stared at the center table, the encyclopedia, the colorful and helplessly irrelevant coasters on the dinning table, the fucking TV, the books, the toy blocks, the paintings, and out the windows from which I could see the real menace of them all: a gasless vehicle.

So, three minutes later a saw myself, as if suddenly awakened from sleep-walking, riding my bicycle towards downtown with a (earlier) borrowed guitar strapped to my back. I guess you could, if you wanted to, imagine me looking down, front, and sideways as if caricaturesquely confused while my feet moved frenetically in what appeared to be automated pedaling cycles. You don’t have to imagine me thus, but it could add a slightly comical twist to your reading if you are a slap-stick kind of person. So anyway, I was thinking about all kinds of stuff while I pedaled away to downtown. The plan that from such cycling thoughts emerged was this: arrive at the downtown border bridge on El Paso St.(in El Paso Tx), park my bicycle, walk across the border in to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, spot a space where I could sit, drop my hat and begin to play my songs. Simple thus genial, I thought. So genial I didn’t even think about bringing the extra 30 cents that I’d have to pay to cross the bridge back to the States. My (borrowed) guitar, 35 cents in my pocket, an almost illegal amount of adrenaline in my blood and myself made it across the border and into Downtown Juarez. Well, actually, the 35 cents had to stay with the lady at the pay booth.

You might ask yourself at this point, since I mentioned geniality and all that, wouldn’t it be simpler to avoid the border crossing thing and just play in the streets of downtown El Paso? Well, there’s the rub (and I do mean rub, no Shakespearean connotation intended). I’m still investigating thoroughly the legalities of it but I have been witness of tickets being handed out by police officers to street musicians in downtown El Paso. So for the time being, I’m sticking to Mexico, it makes this blog sound so much more interesting, or at least not as painful. I’ll be following up on such issues in this blog, plus the places where I play, the people that I encounter and of course the money that I make for it is such that we are interested in, aren’t we? So down to the basics of it all for now:

 

 

Day 1 

 

Amount of money made: $3.88 (ouch)

Cost of crossing the border: .35 cents going plus .30 cents coming back.

Total gain: $3.23 (OUCH)

Time played: 1 hour 45 minutes. (As R. Starr would say “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”)

Actually doing it: priceless. (plus we made it to the gas station and to work)