Please Don’t Feed the Starving Artist

Imagine walking down historic Royal Street, enjoying the warm gulf air as you sip a blended margarita. You turn the corner and find yourself nearly overwhelmed by the rich perfume radiating from a section of wall completely covered in night blooming jasmine, pale white in the moonlight. After a deep breath you fully exhale, turning the corner before being hit with a powerful breeze composed of pure shit, piss and beer.

Welcome to New Orleans. This city has unique beauty unlike anywhere else on the planet. The culture that blossoms here can elevate your senses to previously unimaginable heights, but it also has thorns that can leave you bleeding on the concrete. Put plainly, the highs are incredibly high, and the lows can be alarmingly low.

I have had hesitations about getting too comfortable in this town, fears of growing roots where they can be easily washed away. This place is below sea level, nowhere in America has a closer proximity to hell than New Orleans. The ever-present possibility of impending doom definitely factors into the attitude of its inhabitants. An early impression I had of New Orleans was that it was just a raging party town. In retrospect I realize that the people here are celebrating today, knowing that’s all they’re guaranteed. Carpe Diem is ingrained in the culture, and as long as I’m here I’m going to do my best to reflect that.

As I become more comfortable on the streets, I’m having a lot more fun out there. I’m getting used to standing on a corner with a rope laid on the ground around me, “MAGIC SHOW” sign out, spending ten minutes attempting and failing to gather a crowd before the right group stops. From there the swell can grow to forty, or shrink out of existence. I can be tipped $50 for 15 minutes of entertainment, or I can given a single dollar. Sometimes, these events happen back-to-back. Some of the best advice I’ve been given is to judge your earnings by the week, or by the month, because every day, every show, is a whole new game. The most important thing is to have fun. Like the city, the highs are high, and the lows are low.

Quite possibly the best part of returning to New Orleans is being surrounded by so many other artists and street performers, and more specifically, magicians. Magic is definitely a geek topic, it’s something you can only be completely communicative about with other magicians. There are a lot of really talented prestidigitators (fancy word for magician) here, and I’m very grateful to call most of them my friends. Whatever it is you do, I think it’s important to surround yourself with likeminded folks. They’re bound to inspire new ideas and provide feedback. In a town with thorns like New Orleans, they can also provide protection.

If you work at night here, it’s wise to team up with someone. Hell, it’s wise to have someone watching your back any time of the day. On Saturday I did a short show in front of the Saint Louis cathedral, a giant castle-looking church that the rest of the city was planned around. It’s an incredible pitch, but since it was my first time working there, I was uncomfortable in the huge open space, and the crowd was pretty small. There were a few little boys hanging around, between 5 and 8, unsupervised as I imagine they almost always were. They were there throughout the show, and then vanished when it was over. Afterwards, I was talking with two fellow magicians, one of which turned, looked behind me and yelled “Hey! Don’t do that!”. I turned and saw the youngest of those boys with his arms out wide, as though to give me a hug. He must’ve been five or so, his eyes directed downward and his speech quiet. “What, I can’t give him a hug?” the child responded. Oblivious, I said “No, but you can have a high five” and gave him one up high. Alex, the magician that stopped him, gave him a few more stern words and told him to get out of here. The kid ran off, and Alex then told me that the kid had unzipped my bag and had his hand in the pocket I kept my show earnings in.

This kid was young. But circumstances as they are, he had learned what he learned from his environment, and it was definitely not the first time he’d attempted pickpocketing, nor was it the first time he’d been caught. From the corner of his eye he knew he’d been spotted, and immediately assumed the hug position. This city has thorns, I tell ya.

I am here to be influenced. I imagine my character having a distinct flavor, part of that being soulful undertones from the great city of New Orleans. I’ve stopped in this part of the country to smell the roses. If you ever find the chance, I strongly encourage you to do the same.

But be careful.

This weekend was productive, but now I’m looking to settle into the habit of working full time, spending time out there when no one else will. At first, I wanted to get a regular job to supplement my income and take some pressure off my role as a performer. However, I’m realizing that if a starving artist has too much food, he’s not a starving artist anymore. Financially, I skidded into New Orleans on my last few bucks. After paying rent I was completely broke, though there were opportunities to make money outside of performing. True, I need money. However, more than I need money, I need the need for it. It’s what will keep me honest, keep me working hard, keep me on the streets. Without it, I won’t be hungry, and if I’m not hungry, I lose my drive as a starving artist.

Counterintuitive, but I want to work my ass off to pay rent and stay on the streets.

p.s. I was on the front page of the Times-Picayune paper the other day. There’s been some shady politics involving public use of Jackson Square, and this photo was snapped at a meeting of the performers, musicians, and tarot readers.