What do I make? I make eyes lie to brains and I make the lips on mouths split, but most importantly I make moments to be remembered.
Similar to poet/teacher Taylor Mali’s response when asked “what do you make?”, I often want to sidestep the question by saying that I make smiles, memories, someones day. I make my way where I want when I want by making strangers come together to experience wonder.
These intangible rewards I’ve taken to calling Busker Achievements. When an individual tips me $11, that means much more to me than just lunch. It means that the $10 bill wasn’t enough, it means they enjoyed themselves enough to go beyond a good tip and they probably gave me the last of their small bills. When someone approaches me in a New Orleans coffee shop to tell me how much they enjoyed a performance they saw somewhere else in the country, or when a stranger buys me a drink at a concert because they happened to see a show earlier in the day, that’s a Busker Achievement. When someone’s children throw their arms around me, that’s a Busker Achievement.
On a few occasions, I’ve been contacted online by someone that saw a show and wanted to tip but didn’t have any cash at the time. Similar to the $11 tip, instances like this mean so much more than the money because it means these individuals enjoyed themselves enough to track me down in order to show their gratitude.
One of my favorite Busker Achievements is winning individual spectators over. Sometimes there are faces in the crowd that you can just tell don’t like you, or if it’s a child, they may be slightly afraid of you and/or the intense energy of a street show. Once, with a thirty person crowd I simply looked at a little kid, which drew the attention of the entire audience to him. Before I could even open my mouth, the energetic pressure of a crowds gaze cause the little boy to burst into tears, almost like magic.
Lately I’ve taken to tipping the crowd off to potential outcomes of the next move I’m about to make. If I see a kid that is just on the verge of being too shy to be brought on stage, before I address the kid I’ll say to the crowd “This is either going to delight or terrify them”. Sometimes the kid excitedly rushes onstage, sometimes they bury their face in mom or dads leg, but either way I’ve already reached a predetermined understanding with the crowd about what happened. If the kid does shy away, I don’t let them off the hook so easily. I’ll continue the routine with my secondary volunteer, but later in the show I’ll often come back to that same kid after they’ve had a little more time to grow familiar with me. Once again I’ll preface the risk and say to the audience “Let’s see if I’ve won them over” before I ask the child to hold their hand out and wave it over the card. More often than not, the kid has relaxed by then, and the entire audience witnesses me charm a kid that was terrified of me minutes earlier.
Just this weekend, I went to hand my wand to an older woman who turned away in distrust and refused to take it from me. After just a few minutes of tricks and jokes I came back to her and asked her to feel my palms to inspect for magnets or strings. She cautiously placed her hands in mine, and the rest of the audience was so aware of her change of heart that they spontaneously burst into applause. That is a Busker Achievement, one of the many unquantifiable heartwarming rewards of being a street entertainer.
Another favorite busking past time of mine is to see if I can stun a child out of a temper-tantrum. In between shows if I see a kid crying I’ll step in front of them, tap my wand on the ground, vanish it, reproduce it and make a clown nose appear on my face. Recently I was able to do this twice in one day, the sequence of surprises causing the crying child to completely forget what it was they were upset about. Almost like magic.
In Jackson Square there is a veteran musician named Willow who plays guitar while his wife plays drums. Recently his music stopped a woman in her tracks and triggered her to sit down and bawl her eyes out for twenty minutes while listening to him play. Music has incredible power, and Willow’s songs touched her in a very meaningful way. After the woman recovered she bought every CD they had, but I’d be willing to guess that the experience itself was just as valuable (maybe even more so) than the money that changed hands.
People are often quite shocked when they find out how much money can be made by professional street entertainers. But if they knew about Busker Achievements, if they had any idea how special those undocumented human moments are, I bet buskers would be seen in a completely different light. Instead of facing discrimination from businesses and persecution from police, society might pause long enough to see smiling people of every kind being united and delighted. Maybe then we’d realize what street entertainers can really make.