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"You're A Busker ... Busk"

Sometimes, I write fictional scenes and stories about things and people I’ve observed. Years, I was in Manhattan, sitting at a coffee shop, when I saw a street musician playing his guitar in the thick of the chaos that is New York City every day. That visions has, from time to time, popped into my head, and I decided to write a fictional piece based on it; a scene that I contrived as the man played to an audience of one ... himself, just hoping someone would notice. Not sure what you’ll make of it, but maybe you’ll enjoy it.


It’s called busking. And that’s what I do. I busk. Every day.

Well, almost every day . It’s how I get by, how I feed myself, how I cope. But it’s also something I love.

The common term is “street musician,” but I became familiar with the word “busking” only after an over-talkative elderly gentleman kept me company one cold November morning. I had just finished a version of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” (a favorite of mine), and as I retuned before playing the next song, he spoke, and it startled me since I usually perform in a vacuum of sorts, my role being that of a live, street version of “Muzak.”

“Ah, I love to hear a good busker now and again,” he said with wry smile, in a voice that reminded me of Captain Quint from the movie “Jaws.”

He was small and thin; frail is a better characterization. He wore a suit and tie, outdated but clean and pressed, and he carried an umbrella though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Before I had a chance to respond, he continued. “Bet you didn’t even know you were a busker when you set out on your musical journey this morning, did you son?”

I didn’t, and I was still a bit confused, now not so much by the umbrella or the term “busker” as by the fact that he was still talking to me. Generally, the most conversation I get out here is someone telling me to get a job or to stop begging. Let the record reflect, I don’t beg, and for now anyway, this is my job.

The old man continued. “The term is derived from the old French – or maybe it’s Spanish, I don’t quite recall – and it originally meant to prowl, to seek as a pirate might. Pirates, they always intrigued me." He then brandished his umbrella like a sword, almost hitting a young couple passing by.

His comments transitioned seamlessly between an outward conversation with me to an almost whispered inner monologue; little asides that popped into his head as he spoke, sneaking out between the cracks of his primary thoughts.

He spoke and looked like a wise man, a storyteller, once successful and influential – maybe in the investment game or once as a CEO for a large company -- who in his later years passes the time walking the streets looking for interesting things and people, talking to whomever will listen. His confidence and lack of inhibition were impressive. He was comfortable with himself and with others.

“So?” he probed.

“So … what?” I replied, realizing I was no longer playing, just standing and staring at this man, this stranger, a throwback to simpler, more honest times.

“So, are you going busk some more?” (He barked the word “busk” with gruff emphasis, as though that was proper way to say it.)

“I … sir, I’m sorry, but I don’t …” I was flustered, and frankly, hadn’t planned to talk to anyone today.

“Sing, boy! That’s what buskers do. They sing on the street, hoping passersby will voluntarily drop a coin or two at their feet. You’re an entertainer and this world is your audience. Play!”

“Oh, I see … uh, yeah, um, what do you want to hear?” I was completely out of my element.

“You take requests?”

“Well, not usually, but …”

“Just play … play!”

Suddenly, after all this time playing out here in front of everyone and no one, I was nervous. Most days, my audience is an unwilling and indifferent public, my background vocals and instrumentals blending into the ambient sounds of the city … garbage trucks, children crying, sirens.

But this was different. I wasn’t just part of the noise, and I was no longer on the street. I was on stage. There was an expectation put before me. Someone was actually listening.

At first, I couldn’t think of anything to play, even though I know hundreds, maybe thousands of tunes.

I picked and strummed a few chords, wracking my brain before finally easing into “Let It Be Me” (the Ray LaMontagne version, not the one by the Everly Brothers). At first, I felt uncomfortable, playing with this man so intently listening to me; an audience of one. But after a bit, it got easier, and I just did what I do.

I played.

And as I hit the final chord, I looked at the man, and saw him standing with his eyes closed, and that same wry smile on his face. I had tapped into something. Maybe a memory. Or maybe it made him feel good to hear someone playing music just for him.

After what seemed like forever, he opened his eyes and began clapping. “Beautiful, son. Simply beautiful,” he said, and then, he did something that I never could have imagined. He turned to the people on the street, people on their way to somewhere (in the world, in their careers and their lives), and he talked to them as they passed. “Did you hear that beautiful music?” he asked a well-appointed executive obviously in a hurry.

“My friend here is quite talented,” he mentioned to the young mother struggling with two small children and a dog in tow.

“Any silver or scrip you can spare is much appreciated for this fine busker!” he shouted, startling the dozen or so pigeons that had congregated nearby. I was embarrassed, flattered and touched all at the same time. I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled and nodded.

As I again tuned my guitar in preparation for my next song, he leaned in, and as he dropped a bill in my case, he put his hand on my shoulder, and pulled me close to him.

“Thank you, son. You made this old man’s day. Don’t stop.”

And with that, he was on his way, and I never saw him again.

© 2016 David R. Haznaw

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