I signed up to be a street performer because I wanted to push my boundaries, expand my social skills and sculpt a charismatic character out of a shy introvert. So far it seems to be working, but… I fail. A lot. And almost all of it is public. Through this process I discover, excavate, and learn to accept parts of myself I never would have seen if not through the eyes of strangers.
One day I am on a corner of Jackson Square, arranging and rearranging my props on the ground while waiting for the right wave of foot traffic. To the untrained eye, this ceremony is fairly unusual — the sight of a well dressed young man making minute and seemingly meaningless adjustments to a motorcycle helmet, giant wrench, and hat laying on the ground. The objective is to create the illusion that I’ve just arrived and have only recently begun setting up, even if I’ve been there for five minutes already.
As I’m arranging and rearranging, a gentleman in his fifties with a group of five walks past, gesturing to me and saying “This guy is a frickin’ nut job. A total frickin’ nut job”. Laughter ensues, both from his party and me. I’ve grown accustomed to being misunderstood, and this gentleman is not the first person to pause their stroll through my office to laugh in my face — nor will he be the last. Shortly thereafter, I gather a sizable crowd, put on a good show, and collect a respectable hat. I receive the internal validation of a job well done and the man that called me a nut job is long gone.
Later the same day I’m in front of the St. Louis cathedral, patiently waiting for the tour group paused in front of me to move onward. In the meantime I’m goofing off like I normally do, flipping my hat onto my head and entertaining myself. There’s a pair of attractive young women leaning against the fence behind me. Out of my peripheral I see them pointing and hear them laughing. The tour group is taking their sweet time, so this carries on for about ten minutes, me goofing off, them looking and laughing. Two men I assume to be their boyfriends come around the corner and join them, more pointing and laughing. I see one of the gentlemen pretending to mime, holding up his hands against an invisible wall. I’m aware they’re laughing at my expense, which is quite fine. I can afford it.
The tour group moves on and I catch the traffic wave I’d been waiting for. As a dozen people slow their stride to watch me, I run through my opening patter, which includes a line about how the social process usually begins as me being the crazy guy in the street. I throw a sidelong smile at the group along the fence, who have long since stopped laughing, caught up in the momentary enchantment the initial spectacle induces. There’s twenty or so people watching when I call the crowd up to the line to start the show, and as I become surrounded by strangers I shoot another sideways smirk at my friends on the fence. They eventually join the crowd to gasp, laugh, and tip me.
I watched them judge the hell out of me, then had the satisfaction of watching them see me succeed, the validation of being paid by those that were mocking me minutes prior. As with the older gentleman earlier in the day, this redemption is not always the case, but it is very gratifying when the misunderstanding is clarified. While I was retelling this story to my room mate the other night, he brought up an eye-opening point — as these people were judging me, my internal dialogue was something to the affect of “Oh really? Judge me do you? Who are you to judge me?! I’ll show you!”
Which, I later realized, was me judging them.
It was clear that I was entertaining them before the show began, clear I was the topic of their conversation. But I don’t know what they were saying. Though they may not withhold judgement, I know better. It’s natural for judgement to breed more judgement, but as a street performer I know that I am going to be mocked — it was in the fine print when I signed up for this profession, and it’s my responsibility to adapt. Countless times I’ve converted hecklers into fans by maintaining good humor and not taking anything personally. Just because they’re laughing at me doesn’t mean I can’t laugh with them.
Busking continues to teach me incredible life lessons, and I certainly never thought it’d be such a powerful learning experience.
Thanks for reading, stay tuned <3