When I was 22 I was homeless.
I spent Christmas alone in a parking lot, with my puppy.
Homeless in December
As the new year approached I started noticing that the night life downtown was picking up. Which — as a homeless person dependent on money and food from others — was a good thing.
It was my first Winter on the streets and I had a lot to learn. I was lucky enough to fall into a group of self-proclaimed buskers. This was a word that they used, and were quite proud of. I had no clue what they were talking about. To me they were just the bums on the street asking for handouts.
So they invited me out one evening to join to them.
My First Busking Experience
Now I was a seasoned couch surfer at this point in my career. I had my strategy down and everything. The goal was to intentionally leave something of value at the various places you stayed so you also had a reason to casually “stop by“.
I can’t tell you how many times I had to “come by to pick up my bass guitar“.
So inviting me out to go busk — ha — was I going to show them. There is no way these poor lost troubadours were going to get the best of me. Trying to teach ME how to busk. Hrmph. Yeah – right.
I am grinning ear to ear thinking about this moment in my life.
There we were. Covered in dirt. We smelled of cheap beer and smoke (mostly from the campfires but there were a few hints – notes – of cigarettes and cannabis mixed in there. You know – for the advanced palate).
We walked downtown. Walking down the street was the easy part. While you were walking you had an agenda. You were going somewhere. You had shit to do. Nobody stopped or looked twice. Then we got there. To the end of the street.
You guys we stopped dead in our tracks and the buskers looked at me. (I am smiling so much writing this).
The street corner.
I looked at them.
They looked at me.
I looked at them.
What are you smiling about?
Okay what do I do?
“Okay…” I said to myself. I pulled out my cardboard sign and sat down. I was going to politely wait for a handout with my cleverly crafted sign. My cardboard sign read
“Your mom gave me a dollar”.
I sat down with my sign. With all of them looking at me, and I waited.
They walked away.
I watched them walk to their individual areas and begin doing things. One of them pulled out a harmonica. Another — a set of tennis balls to juggle – and another started telling jokes.
Oh fuck. These guys are good. These guys have fucking tricks. Shit… I suck. Nobody told me we were supposed to do tricks. What the fuck. I don’t have any god damned tricks.
I can’t juggle – that shit is hard. *literally drops hacky sack on the ground*
My friend Amanda looked at me and smiled. “You can’t be a busker and not do anything” she laughed.
That was the day I learned the life long lesson that nothing is free. You can’t draw a crowd and not do a trick. You can’t get a handout without a skill. You have to practice. You have to work on something. You have to juggle — tell jokes — there has to be a gimmick. You have to make someone smile.
Amanda walked closer and told me that I needed to either start doing something — or put the sign away — that they were going to get upset with me.
The campfire smelling, drunk and stoned bums on the street corner juggling and telling jokes were about to “kick me out” of their crew.
Because I wasn’t doing anything.
That was the day I realized the difference between begging, and busking.
That was the day I realized that drawing a crowd is the easy part.
“You can’t be a busker and not do anything” I laughed.
I say this to myself every time I walk on stage.