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Sing for your Supper

Posted by Dave Bull at 2:03 PM, January 5, 1997

Among other interesting benefits of getting older are those opportunities that occasionally arise to observe younger people doing something that we ourselves did when we were their age ... to see events from the 'other side', with adult eyes. Of course this happens almost every day when watching one's own children, but it also happens at other times as well, as it did to me recently when strolling in Kyoto with Sadako.

We were passing through Maruyama Park, moving slowly in the general direction of Kiyomizu-dera, although with no particular destination in mind. As we approached the open space at the centre of the park, we seemed to hear the sound of a radio playing, but coming closer, found that it wasn't a broadcast; it was live - a busker performing for the pigeons and strollers. He was quite well organized, and had a miniature P/A system set up so he could sing into a microphone to have his voice 'processed' and mixed with the sound of his guitar. He had arranged a comfortable seat, with his guitar case laying open on the ground in front of him. As his voice was pleasant, and he smiled a lot, his case seemed to be filling up with donations quite nicely.

Seeing him there though, I must admit that I did feel a bit of irritation at first ... Who is this guy, to disturb my sunny day in the park? But although I am getting older, I hope I can avoid becoming such a crusty old curmudgeon. I put away such thoughts, and just enjoyed his singing for a few minutes as we strolled past ...

And of course, how could I possibly harbour negative thoughts towards a busker in the park? Could I have so easily forgotten ... a cold, cold winter in London, England nearly 23 years ago? Another young busking musician ... Not with microphone and guitar, but just his flute ... No, I hadn't forgotten ...

I was twenty. A year or so earlier, I had abandoned an unsuccessful flirtation with university, and having returned to my parents' home from residence at school, was doing ... not much of anything. I dabbled at guitar building and music teaching for night school classes, worked a bit in my father's small music shop, and also built some simple furniture. My stated goal was to become a classical flute player, but in reality there wasn't much progress being made towards that end. Although my parents were generally patient with my aimlessness, they obviously came over time to feel that 'something had to be done'. I would be over-dramatizing if I told you that they 'kicked me out of the house', but I guess they must have felt that unless they applied a bit of stimulus, I would 'amount to nothing'. And so it was that one day that autumn I found myself on an airplane heading for England, on a one-way ticket. My flute was in my suitcase, and in my wallet was about 100 Pounds, along with a slip of paper on which was written the telephone number of one of my father's oldest friends, a well-known drummer in the pop and jazz scene in London ...

Cut to nearly one week later ... our hero, sitting in his rented room in Hammersmith, London. In his pocket, there are now only two or three pounds. In his suitcase, now two flutes. He is imagining tomorrow's conversation with the landlord ... "Good morning, Mr. Bull. It's time for the weekly rent payment today ..." "Er, yes ... er ... um ... er ... "

As embarrassing as it seems to report it now, I had got myself in a bit of a silly jam. One day during that first week, just after I had located and rented a suitable room, but before I had done anything about finding work, or finding a place to study flute, or getting settled down at all, I had fallen in love ... Fallen in love with a beautiful wooden flute I had seen in a music shop. A flute that, when I tried it out, had called to me, "I'm yours! Let's make music together!" What can I say? I was young, inexperienced ... and a pushover. We walked out of the shop together. Rent money? Oh, I'll think about that later ...

And now it was later. Of course, there was always that piece of paper and the telephone number ... But that was impossible. To call up that busy and successful man, and admit defeat after less than a week? Impossible! I may not have acted very responsibly with my money, but there was no power on earth that would make me call that man, confess 'defeat', and ask for help. No power on earth.

But the rent was due, and I would soon be getting hungry. Something had to be done. One of my walks around London that week had brought me to that area on the South Bank of the Thames that housed a group of concert and recital halls. I had stood for a while outside the Royal Festival Hall there, watching the people going in for a performance by one of London's famous orchestras, and had daydreamed that one day they would be coming to hear me playing in there.

It occurred to me now that perhaps it wasn't necessary to wait ... Why not play for them now, outside the hall. All those hundreds of classical music lovers - if they were to hear my beautiful playing ... wouldn't they be willing to make some small donations?

That evening I went over there to try it out. The main doors through which attendees entered the building opened onto a concrete plaza facing the river. The nearest train station, Charing Cross, was just on the other side of the river, and streams of people were making their way towards the hall, walking across a pedestrian bridge. I was very nervous as I 'set up' in a suitable place: near the building wall where the sound of my flute would be projected out across the concrete plaza and over the water. It seemed like a perfect location. My 'customers' would be able to hear the music for a good five minutes or so as they came gradually closer across the bridge ... and would then have to pass directly in front of me, and my open flute case, to enter the hall.

Case open on the ground in front of me, I started. I can still remember the first piece I played; a showy little etude full of cascading arpeggios and runs. A million notes packed into just a few bars. I was astonished at the sound that came out. Each note seemed to hang in the air, and travel for miles. Perhaps the water was acting as a sounding board, or perhaps there was some kind of echo from the buildings across the river ... It was a magnificent location. No matter how opulent the concert hall at my back may have been inside, it couldn't have sounded as good as this!

A coin fell into the case. I nodded a wordless 'thank you' and continued playing. Another ... then another ... then more and more ... I had to give up nodding. It was impossible to continue playing while bobbing up and down so much. About thirty minutes or so later, the stream of concert goers petered out to almost nothing. The real concert in the hall must have been about to begin. Mine was over.

I stared at my flute case in absolute astonishment. It was almost buried under the pile of money. Most contributions were the large and heavy 10p coins, but there was paper money also, plenty of it. I had no bag with me, no way to carry it all, so I stuffed coins into every pocket I could find in my trousers and jacket, front back and inside, and then started home, jingling at every step. The money problems seemed to be over. The concert hall schedule posted on the kiosks all around the area showed that there were symphony concerts held there every night of every week. It was apparently going to be possible to make a living from my flute 'practice' time.

And so it was. I didn't 'go to work' every day, as the English weather certainly didn't permit that, but spending only a few evenings each week giving my short concerts provided enough income for a very comfortable living. My daytime hours were spent walking around London, taking in the museums, parks and street life, but I always adjusted my wandering to make sure that I would arrive at the South Bank in time to 'greet' the concert crowds.

My new 'job' turned out to have an important side benefit - thanks to my busking activities, I was able to get inside the hall too. Not on the stage of course, but in the audience. As I was cleaning up the over-flowing case after my performance one evening, I found, mixed in with the money, a concert ticket ... a ticket to that evening's concert. As soon as I realized what it was, I quickly gathered my things together, headed inside, and made my way to the seat marked on the ticket. Of course everybody was already seated, and the music was about to begin. Can you picture the scene ... this guy in shabby clothes, his pockets all stuffed to bursting with coins, jingling his way towards the empty seat in the middle of the row of elegantly dressed London concertgoers? "Er ... excuse me ..." jingle jingle "... pardon me ..." jingle jingle ...

I wonder now whether the gentleman who had tossed the ticket into my case, perhaps on impulse, perhaps in anger at being 'stood up' by his date, had really foreseen the consequence - that this rather scruffy busker would end up sitting beside him for the next couple of hours! I'm sure he soon regretted his action; I wasn't a 'sociable' person at all, too shy to make even the simplest of conversation. But it was certainly an adventure for me. (It also turned out that busking would get me an entry to backstage as well, but I think I'd better save that for another time ...)

Finding a ticket in my upturned flute case was an event that came to be repeated fairly frequently. I became better prepared for it, trying to wear more presentable clothes, and obtaining a simple briefcase in which I could dump all that money, enabling me to get to 'my' seat without too much embarrassment. So I was not only supplying my financial needs with this job, but also my 'cultural' ones.

But as the autumn wore on, it started to become apparent that playing flute outdoors on an exposed riverbank had certain drawbacks. It started to get very cold ... Playing flute with gloves on is next to impossible, but I found that by cutting off just the tips of the fingers, I could fashion a pair that would keep my hands from freezing completely.

I ran into another problem one night. When I arrived to start 'work', I found another busker working the area. Perhaps he had watched me staggering away with my pile of coins the night before, and thought that this was too good a chance to pass up. Had he been someone similar to myself, say a young violin student, or someone like that, I would have shrugged my shoulders and left him alone, but I didn't feel so benevolent in this case; he was an old wino. He was so drunk he could barely stand, and sucked uselessly at a harmonica as he wandered around the plaza, clutching at the clothing of the people passing by. I wasn't about to miss my evening's work because of this old guy, so I set up as usual, and started to play. When he heard my flute, he wandered over to confront me. I had expected this, and was ready to make a deal with him, sending him off with a few coins in his pocket, but I wasn't prepared for what actually happened.

He stood watching me for a moment, and then suddenly staggered forward and grabbed the end of my flute. People who have had some experience of flutes know that they come in three pieces which are assembled before playing, but I'm sure that he didn't know this, for when the piece that he grabbed came off in his hand, he was completely stunned. He obviously thought that he had broken it, and just as obviously thought he was now in big trouble. He started to apologize profusely, handed me back the 'broken' piece, and scurried away.

I put the instrument back together, and got on with the work. I'm sure that the 20-year old me was thinking something like, "Stupid old sot! I'm playing real music here, offering these people something worthwhile in exchange for their coins. You're just an old panhandler. Keep out of my way!" But looking back on it now, I wonder if there really was that much difference between us ... we were both just trying to get something for nothing.

It was shortly after this that I had the experience that put an end to my solo 'career' at the Festival Hall. The weather had been bad for a number of days running, and I was casting about for an alternate location to the river-front plaza; a place where I could play under cover, but still catch the stream of concertgoers. I found that patrons for the concert hall also approached the building from the large Waterloo Station located a short distance away in a different direction, walking through a series of covered walkways ... The largest of these walkways was sited just at the exit from the station, and I thought that if I played there, then I could 'catch' not only concertgoers, but also large numbers of people going about other business.

I gave it a try one evening, but hadn't been playing for more than a couple of minutes when I suddenly found myself face to face with two rather unfriendly listeners to my concert ... two 'bobbies', London policemen. All these years later, I can't remember what it was they said to me, but I can remember what they did. A minute later there I was, briefcase under my arm, walking between the two of them as we made our way towards the local police station. I was being 'taken in'.

And I can certainly remember what I was thinking. Are they going to make me phone my parents? What am I going to say ... "Uh, hi Dad! How are things? Good, good! Say, I've got a little problem here ... I've ... uh ... I've just been arrested ... No, no I'm not joking ... I've been arrested for vagrancy. They want you to come over and bail me out ..." Were these policemen going to put me in jail? Me, in jail? Would I have to go to court? What was going to happen now ...

As it turned out, I never was to find out what they had in mind for me. We didn't make it to the police station. No, I didn't make a dramatic escape, nor were they suddenly diverted to something more important. I was rescued by ... of all people, a bag lady. This woman materialized suddenly in front of us, and started asking the bobbies a number of questions: Why were they taking me in? ... What had I done? It now seems inconceivable to me that they even talked to her, instead of just pushing her aside and continuing on. But they did. And not only did they talk to her, but after a couple of minutes of 'negotiation', they released me ... into her care. She grabbed me by the arm and steered me into a nearby tea shop, and they moved off and continued on their rounds.

It was like some kind of weird dream. Here I was, sitting sipping a glass of murky tea together with a real live bag lady, a disgustingly dirty bag lady, complete with a collection of gigantic bags full of junk. I couldn't imagine which was worse, to be in custody of the two policemen on the way to the station, or to be with her. I vaguely remember her as being quite amiable, and concerned about my welfare. Did I have any money? A place to sleep? But my overwhelming desire was just to get away from there; to get away from her, away from the policemen, away from that station ... just get back to my room ... Eventually, I was able to break away, thank her for the 'rescue' and the tea, and get home, pockets empty, but full of relief at not having had to make that phone call.

I never busked again. I learned about a 'labour exchange' near Charing Cross Station, and to support myself, started going there Monday mornings, signing on as a casual labourer for a week at a time, a new job in a new location every week. Thinking back to these events now, I suppose that little 'run-in' with the police was a good experience to have had. It cured me of 'begging', got me off the streets and into more gainful employment, and certainly left me determined not to ever get on the wrong side of the law ever again.

But actually that wasn't the last time I have ever been involved with the police. There was also the time that I was 'taken in' by the RCMP in Canada for smuggling ... But I guess that should probably be another story ...

(January 1997)


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