My Sidewalk Stage
by John Yohe
Strange, almost scary, to stop on the sidewalk, put my guitar case down and opened it. People passing glanced, curious, as I slung guitar strap over shoulder and strummed an open E chord, fine-tuning strings. Part of me even expected cops to show: “Alright buddy, move along!” Perfect day though: Sunday, early Autumn, sunny, a few clouds. Not too hot or humid. I was standing at my favorite two block section of Ann Arbor, in the world really: the T where Liberty runs into State, right outside Border’s Books & Music, across from the Michigan Theatre where they showed good indie films, and with the lingerie store next door, so I was comforted by all my favorite obsessions. Also, it was a strategic location: Liberty a main pedestrian route between stores on State and stores farther west on Main. Plus, relatively quiet, less traffic, and Border’s took up the whole block, so I’d be visible, and hearable, for a long ways either direction, giving people, I hoped, more time to listen to me, more time to maybe form a favorable opinion of my singing, and more time to consider making a donation.
I started with a favorite song, “Poncho and Lefty,” by Townes Van Zandt, so there was no chance of messing up. Fairly easy chord progression, with good loud lyrics, feeling Townes’ ghost nodding approval as I played the C chord and sand: “Living on the road my friend / what’s gonna keep you free and clean.”
And….people just walked by. Some looked at me like I was a dancing monkey, some just out of the corners of their eyes, not wanting to make actual eye contact, but curious. Some avoiding all eye contact. Some oblivious, in conversations or listening to iPods. The song ended. The world continued. Traffic, people talking, bicycles. No crowds stopping to clap. No crowds at all. But, I was still alive. I had survived my plunge into the unknown. Nothing else to do but play my next song, I guess: Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio.” Two young women smiled as they passed. Alright, I’m not invisible. Women smiling is always a good thing. As long as people didn’t throw tomatoes I figured I could at least get through the day. After about ten minutes, a boy, a teenager, long hair, black t-shirt, walking by with a couple friends, pulled out his wallet, and gave me a dollar. Yes! I thanked him. Now the cash would come rolling in!
Over a half hour later, another dollar. Pocket change from people. Nickels and dimes and, the worst, pennies. People who would never think to leave pennies when they tip a waitress have no problem giving them to me. Quarters, add enough of them up and you get a dollar. But pennies? One guy even threw in five pennies. I have a horrible poker face, and when he saw my expression at first seemed to feel bad, but then shrugged and said, “Sorry, it’s all I got.” Ok, great. Thanks.
Other moments made up for all that though, like women in all shapes and sizes looking good and happy in minimal clothing. Maybe my only regret was seeing one in particular, a truly interesting-looking creature, and thinking, Wow, I should dedicate Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” to her. But I chickened out, thinking she probably would have just looked at me weird and kept walking. Though what if she hadn’t? Don’t chicks dig guys dedicating songs to them? Ah well. Cool people, quick connections: The African guy in dreadlocks giving me a nod and my third dollar. The high school kid in the Slayer t-shirt giving me the thumbs up. The young girl giving me the peace sign out of the back of her father’s SUV. The guy who requested Led Zeppelin and even when I sang a hack job of “Tangerine” said I made his day.
I also learned things, like that there is a law of physics such that trying to play a softer finger-picking ballad like “Blackbird” guaranteed a big diesel truck would stop right in front of me. And that determining a good time to play any song, like I would at a club or café, was almost impossible. I could really be getting into a song, thinking, ‘I’m on man! This is good!’ Then nothing—if there were crickets in downtown Ann Arbor on a late summer afternoon, they would be chirping. I didn’t care about me at that point, there were just these good lyrics I thought people should hear. But I wasn’t sure that mattered more than just being out there playing, and singing on key. People seemed to like the idea of a person playing any kind of music in a public place, so long as it isn’t too awful.
I played for about two hours, until the strings were cutting into my fingertips, which was also about when my song list ran out. But I had just earned most of my money in that last hour, and there seemed to be a couple folks hanging out actually listening: This guy with his dog, and a guy from the movie theatre out on a break sitting on the curb across the street. So I kept going, replaying a few of the songs I had started out with. And made a little bit more money. I decided to stop when there didn’t seem to be anyone on my side of the block. Of course as soon as I gathered my things together the sidewalk filled with people.
Total haul for those two and a half hours: $12.61. 16 cents worth in pennies, eight dollars in bills. Minus the fifty-odd cents I’d thrown in to start off, and the $2.07 for a green tea? About minimum wage. But it wasn’t for the money, right? What a way to pass an afternoon, doing something I love, playing good songs, getting to watch people (women), sharing smiles, maybe even lightening somebody’s mood.
I had always liked buskers—street performers—usually musicians of some sort, but also jugglers and mimes, and even the dudes who spray-paint their clothes and skin gold or silver and stand still for long periods of time: Any kind of unofficial, non-city-sanctioned, public entertainment. Something strange but also cool about people who choose to do that. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then, can hardly now, but they were people on the fringe of of society, on the fringe of capitalism, earning money on their own terms, not for anybody else, but always seeming to enjoy themselves, enjoying entertaining other people, even if for only a few seconds, though yes, usually with a hat or guitar case handy to collect money. Not everyone that listened or went away with a smile threw money, and buskers seemed ok with that. But surely they wouldn’t do it just for free, right? How much did they actually make? They didn’t do it for a living, do they? And if they didn’t, why did they do it?
I’ve played music in bands, in clubs on and off for most of my life, and although I semi-secretly had busking thoughts when younger, I ended up learning maybe the least buskable musical instrument ever: the electric bass. But after graduating from college, I set a goal for myself to learn how to play acoustic guitar and sing, though by then, out in the real world, with a job as a wildland firefighter, where I traveled a lot, I didn’t have as much time to devote to practicing. I still had secret busking thoughts, just didn’t ever get around to learning a lot of songs, nor did I consider myself even good enough, especially as a singer. Not that that seemed to stop some buskers I had seen and heard, performing seemingly on sheer guts, though in a way, they were an inspiration too: Surely I wouldn’t be as bad as them.
After some years, in my early 30s, I ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, having quit firefighting and attempting to remain relatively stable for a while. Inspired by the musicians I’d see in the main plaza there, I got serious about my goal again, and worked towards building confidence in my voice and playing, and in building a repertoire, starting with The Beatles, to Bob Dylan, to Johnny Cash and other singer songwriters I’d just been discovering like Townes Van Zant and Jerry Jeff Walker. My goal being to memorize an hour’s worth of songs. Which I attained. But I returned to firefighting for the money and traveled for more years, until ending up back in my home town of Jackson, Michigan, to start a part-time teaching job at the community college, a step towards a change of life, a ‘real’ job, though still at first fighting fires in the summer. But come Fall, with more free time, I also had a great place to busk: Ann Arbor, a half-hour to the east, one of the most liberal towns in the country, home of the University of Michigan, with tons of young creative open-minded students and locals, many of them rich. A busker’s dream town. Thus the start of going over there on a Saturday or Sunday for a couple/few hours to play outside Border’s, until the weather just got too cold.
I actually ended up moving to Ann Arbor for grad school and, depending on how busy I was with firefighting and teaching, continued busking off and on, though always perhaps more off than on. My first semester I kept saturday afternoons open, weather permitting, as a form of fun stress relief. After a couple years of occasional weekend busking, I still remained vaguely curious about whether a person could survive on it. That is, could it be a way to make a living? So when I graduated I found myself looking at a completely free summer in Ann Arbor while applying for full-time teaching jobs for next fall. I didn’t really feel like getting some service-industry job, even for only a few months. I did the numbers: a good afternoon of busking usually earned me around thirty dollars. Sometimes more, sometimes less (sometimes a lot less) but if I usually played for four hours, that came out to about seven to eight dollars an hour—better, or at least equal to, any part-time summer service-industry job, like say, the Border’s that I busked outside of. Even if I didn’t get a full-time teaching position in the Fall, I’d get enough classes as an adjunct to survive, and I still had a wee bit of student loan money saved up. This was my chance. Even if I failed miserably, it’d still only just be for the summer.
And….I failed miserably.
First problem: I hadn’t been playing enough in the last year, trying to graduate and finish my master’s project and grade student papers, so didn’t have very heavy calluses on my fingers. The first day I go out, I could barely play three hours before my fingers felt raw. Which meant that the next day they were in pain right from the start and I could hardly play two hours. Ditto the third day.
Second problem: I only really made decent money on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Other days, for whatever reason, did not bring in anything close to my normal average of seven to eight dollars an hour. Different crowd? People not in a giving mood on the weekdays? Also, something about summer break in a college town made it so I wasn’t making that much on Sundays either, which had been my busiest day. Less students? Less people period?
Third problem: weather. Michigan, in early Summer, has lots of rain. A couple weekends just rained me out. One day of rain per weekend is ok, and I was actually kind of grateful, giving my fingers time to recover, though it put a big dent in my weekly earnings. Also, in Michigan, we have a thing called winter, which is very cold, and which lasts about six months. No way someone could busk year-round here.
Fourth: Busking that much ended up making playing music into a job. “Desperado” is a great song, people like it, one of those songs that boosts the money-giving, but I lost my energy playing it two or three times a day. Plus three hours is tiring, doing so three days in a row exhausting. I felt lethargic, my voice raw, and I suspect that figured into people’s perception of me, and whether they wanted to tip me, since it seemed like I was earning less money, though so many variables are involved I couldn’t say for sure. That did give me new appreciation for my musical heroes, though, who did year-long tours playing and singing the same songs every night. The difference being that playing at clubs and halls, as I’ve done also, a musician has an audience, there’s a feedback dynamic that happens, which creates energy for everyone involved. With busking, no matter how many people smile and throw money, there’s not the same continuous enthusiasm and energy.
At the last minute, Jackson Community College asked me to teach a summer class. I’d earn around $2,000 in three months, working two nights a week, plus grading some papers on weekends. So I accepted and called off my busking experiment. And that was ok. I was fortunate enough, and privileged I know, to be able to do it. I did occasionally still go out for an afternoon, for fun, when I felt like it, when there was a sunny day and people are out on the streets. And, when I get tired, I stopped. Much better that way.
I almost never had any trouble busking. Cops never even looked at me—just another Ann Arbor weirdo. But that last autumn in Ann Arbor, there seemed to be more buskers out, I’m not sure why. In the big picture this was a good thing—I liked more music in the streets. But in the small picture, the competition got annoying, especially when they took ‘my’ spot, and weren’t even good.
More significantly, and perhaps an example of where the economy was in general (in 2009, post 2008 Crash) more and more homeless people, including younger transients, appeared. They too liked hanging out in front of Border’s, for some of the same reasons. With both fellow buskers and older homeless people, there had generally seemed to be an unwritten code that whoever arrived there first got to keep not only that spot, but that whole block, because one person begging and one playing music caused people to not give money to either one—either it became charity overload, or they don’t like to choose, or they feel guilty giving to one right in front of the other (and I think people are generally only up to giving once per day). But, for example, one afternoon a younger homeless guy sat down about fifteen feet away while I was playing. When I asked him, trying to be polite, if he could go somewhere else, he proposed that we split the take. He was either dumb, or on drugs, or had mental problems, or all of the above, so I packed up my stuff and found another spot. There’s really nothing you can do in that situation, like call the cops. I mean, I don’t feel guilty for competing with a homeless person for the best spot to make money but I’m not going to get in a yelling match with them about it either. But that wasn’t an isolated incident, and finding a good spot to busk in general became more difficult.
In this time period; one afternoon a younger guy, dressed decently with short hair, knelt down next to my guitar case while I was playing. Took me a couple seconds to realize he was scooping my money into a plastic cup (btw, a tip: I only ever left two or three bills there. The rest I tucked in my pockets almost immediately). I knelt down, trying not to be confrontational, and put my hand on the plastic cup to signal no. He immediately stood up, snarling: “Don’t you fucking touch me! I’ll fucking kick your ass! You think I was trying to steal your money?! I don’t need your fucking money!”
I think he may have been on drugs, though his eyes weren’t dilated or bloodshot or anything, but I’m not sure what else could explain that kind of anger: He was glaring, ready to hit me, no joke. What he said (or yelled) to me was that he was trying to ‘help’ me by putting my money in the plastic cup. How that helped I don’t know, but I just went into the calmest teacher-mode I could and said, ok, I didn’t know that you were trying to help, and thanked him. He continued to swear and accuse me of thinking he was homeless, accusing me of being a “bum,” saying he should take my guitar and break it over my head. I apologized again, which he didn’t know how to take, so just kicked my guitar case once, gave me a last fuck you, and walked off.
A couple of people came up to ask if I was ok, which made me feel good, that if things had gotten out of hand, there would have been others to at least call the cops. My hands shook a bit at first, a little, but I kept playing, not wanting to stop, which would have meant he had won somehow. Once I started making music again, I even kind of forgot him, or at least don’t let him ruin the afternoon. Unfortunately, for a while after that I’m always a little…not scared, but wary, of him appearing again.
Once I did finally get a real job teaching full-time back in Jackson at JCC, with a real salary that seemed like a million dollars, I left off busking. No time really. Too many student essays to read on weekends. I continued to play music (though not as much as I would have liked) at open mics and with occasional bands. It was ok. I had actually lived one of my childhood dreams. How often do we do that? And I became a much stronger singer. Maybe it was a last childhood gasp before I became an adult with a real job. I hope not. And I still find myself scoping out good sidewalks to play.
John Yohe has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Best of the Net nominee x2. Notable Essay List for Best American Essays 2021 and 2022. @thejohnyohe www.johnyohe.weebly.com