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


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:


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.


Day 19


Amount of money made: $ .5 cents 😦

Time played: 2 songs

Exchange rate: does it really matter?


Nicelandia… March 13, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized,Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 6:41 pm
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gus’ downtown pic 

*Photograph by dear friend Gustavo Martinez

Again, across the river, as a welcoming message, laid that smoggy hue. It was just there floating as if waving hello in slow motion, heavier than the power of the gentle breeze that felt too lazy to struggle with it. 

I arrived to my area from the side street and discovered that a shop in the front, one of those predatory finance companies, had a PA system full blast with loud C music and an even louder DJ repeating over and over that they could get you out of debt…with a loan. So if I actually stood where I always do, at the left side of the main entrance to the museum, I would be straight across the speakers and would have had no voice by the end of the first song. I didn’t of course and opted to head towards the corner, probably one of the busiest corners in the whole 1.4.million people town. At first it was kind of difficult to hear myself but I then managed to modulate my voice and the guitar to get something out of it. I guess what usually helps me be louder just a hundred feet from there are the walls of the buildings facing me. At the corner my voice just goes everywhere without bouncing back.

I arranged mys guitar case with the essential anchor charm: a dollar bill and three coins holding it from flying out. The day was perfect and I played for a good hour, rested a little bit and then played a half more. As I have discussed in previous post, the mere fact of being there spraying my voice against the whole revolving chaos gives me sudden chuckles, outbursts of joy comparable to those expressed in a drunken state when surrounded by very good friends. I think its the nonsense of it all. I managed to gather a crowd that stayed for a whole song, that is always a pretty cool thing. It gave energy to continue playing after I had finished my first set. People even threw coins from cars which even though might be with the best of intentions it does not strike me as something I want hapening all the time.

Day 18


Amount of money made: $7.37

Time Played: 1h 25m

Exchange rate: 10.67 pesos/dollar


Fitter, Happier, More Productive… March 1, 2008

Filed under: Fridays — ramonalvarado @ 2:47 am
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I was nervously excited yet there wasn’t a way for me to overtly express it as obviously as I once did with frenetic pedaling when on a bicycle. Full speed-an amazing and mind boggling 18 mph- I surfed my Goped amidst the cars in central El Paso. Maybe my turns and zigzags were slightly more anxious, maybe my head was stiffer all the while, maybe I gave a few more fingers or yelled a few more obscenities to cellphone driver drones; maybe I did all of that at the same time, many times, at every a single swift  of my wobbly Goped but I wouldn’t know. I was nervous.

I arrived at the downtown area where I surfed past the streets at cruising-speed but because of the narrowness of the lanes, the smallness of my being amongst the buildings and the ant-like illusion of the crowd I just felt faster, action-style faster. I arrived, I parked and I walked through the border. It’s funny but you can really smell it as soon as you are right halfway past the Rio Grande. A mixture smell of smog and lard flows towards your face as you walk down the bridge. It smells as it sounds as it tastes, like the language: spicy, spacey, spoty but also quite diffused…lardy.  Something between a taco and a cloud.


I have this vision of an image being swallowed by a vacuum. That’s how it felt when I opened the guitar case on the sidewalk. Everything shut up as if absorbed by that hollow in the heart of my instrument. It was a beautiful day but I couldn’t play for that long. My fingers and throat need to readjust to the task.

Day 17 


Amount of money made: $5.57

Time played: maybe 1 hr.

Exchange rate: 10.6o pesos per dollar.

Being back: let me check my MasterCard…oh, yes, priceless.


71°F February 14, 2008

Filed under: Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 1:32 am
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I wasn’t going to, I had other things to do during the day and besides I hadn’t quite properly prepared but I went for it anyway because the weather said so. I looked out the window, decided to do it and then gathered up my stuff. I went to the room in the back to tune my guitar with my Wurlitzer tuner/something else (500 lb. church organ or something like that), cut the excess string from the new strings I’d just installed yesterday, grabbed the guitar strap from my son’s guitar, put it on mine, got it in the case. I also changed clothing from a t-shirt to a shirt and a coat, I got my passport and put it in my purse (I’ll keep on calling it like that, don’t you even mention it!), grabbed my goggles, reflective vest, helmet and a sip of water just before heading out.

Right at the door I decided that it was a bit much to carry the purse with me when my guitar case had extra pockets for gear. So I went back to seat my guitar on the couch, got my camera, my chain and my passport out of the purse and into the guitar case pockets.

As I was going out I thought it was a bad idea to have my passport just dangling around with the rest of the stuff, so I stopped, got it out and into the little side pocket of my coat it went. Once outside I got my goped started, warmed it up a bit, accelerated on neutral two or three times and headed towards the front yard door. While doing so I felt a bit overdressed. Never mind wearing a fancy shirt or  a coat to busk in the streets, but rather the fact that such a coat was dark dark blue and made out of wool while it was sunny and 71°F outside. So I went back in, threw the coat on the bed, got another sip of water, rushed out, got on the goped and took off.


The ride was quite nice actually. The streets of downtown El Paso were buzzing with people and they all stared at the goped as if it was something out of this world, not like cool-out of this world, but rather ridiculous-out of this world. With a face that seemed to say something like “what’s that gonna do when it gets squashed by a Hummer!” Anyway, I arrived at the bridge, proceeded to lock my goped and helmet and as I walked towards the booth to pay my 35c to cross the bridge I remembered…the coat, the little left side inner pocket and my passport inside of it. Needless to say, I didn’t make it across the border. It was just one of those instances where you can picture the strawberry ice cream ball tumbling towards the floor from your clumsily tipped cone, all in slow motion. I just unlocked my goped, got on it and headed back home full speed.


So you thought… February 9, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 8:18 pm
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New lira

So you thought I had made it big and forgotten all about the small time busking, right? Well, in case you don’t already know, I haven’t just yet and I haven’t forgotten about the busking thing either, how could I? Not long ago I told a painter friend of mine from Canada how the busking thing felt to me as if finally, after a long time, my soul was able to fit into that emotional suit it had been longing to fit into its entire life. I guess its not the busking thing in itself but rather the whole experience that has a certain element of Gipsyness and just playing out there brings my whole body to smile unexpectedly.

I know it has been a long time without a guitar but the past month has brought some good things. Two things specifically: A guitar of my own that arrived yesterday (I won’t say brands or anything like that because I frankly don’t care enough) and a Goped (a motorised standing scooter). So the busking thing just got a little easier. I have a case for the guitar and I can jump on that goped and head out full speed (20mph) towards the downtown crossing bridge. I’ll do that this coming week, so expect some more adventures being posted very very soon. Thanks for waiting!



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.