Wednesday, September 30, 2015

down in the tunnels, trying to make it pay

"Buscar" is a Spanish verb that means "to seek.*" It evolved into "busker," a term for street performance for gratuities. You know, those guys you see on the corner in high traffic areas, a well-worn acoustic guitar slung across their midsection, passionately singing on their cement stage. Sometimes they accompany themselves on a beat-up violin or even bang rhythmically on an inverted plastic bucket. But they are always sporting an overturned hat or similar receptacle with which to gather small monetary donations from passersby.

A lot of famous people launched their careers by busking. As a child, B.B. King (then known by his real name Riley) played the blues on his guitar on the streets of Mississippi. While busking in Spain in 1962, young Rod Stewart was arrested for vagrancy and deported back to his native England. Tracy Chapman was an active busker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while she attended Tufts University. Folk-punk pioneers The Violent Femmes were busking outside a theater in Milwaukee when James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders asked them to come in and play a set before his band took the stage.

Since I commute to work by train, I pass through the massive Suburban Station in Philadelphia twice daily. I routinely see a familiar parade of buskers both on the busy center city streets and in the train station itself. Despite the early hour of my arrival, I see a smattering of violinists, cellists and flutist set up in remote corners of the station. They feverishly draw their bows across those taut catgut strings or delicately blow into their respective mouthpieces. Judging by the amount of money accumulated in their hats (or cigar box or whatever), they have been at it since before the sun rose that morning. I've seen solos, duos and trios of velvety voices doo-wopping their way though a classic tune to the delight of the small audiences gathered in a semicircle around them. I've heard the unlikely combination of banjo and trumpet or harmonica and accordion playing harmoniously together or discordantly fighting for attention just a few feet away from each other.

There are some genuinely talented individuals singing on the streets and in the train station. I've heard voices and musicianship that rival — or even surpass — some that I've paid to see on the stages of some of the city's bigger venues.

Then there's this guy.

I see him nearly every day, though not always in the same spot. Sometimes, he's in the narrow walkway, blocking the path of customers exiting the Au Bon Pain. Sometimes he's in the cold, urine-reeking vestibule that leads up to the street level. Sometimes, he's hidden in the dark, vacant, tiled corner that seems forgotten in some renovation plan. That's the spot he seems to like best, because it's there that he plies his typical — and typically strange — performance. Seemingly oblivious to any potential audience, he faces the wall and angrily strums his splintered acoustic guitar. His deep, throaty voice ricochets off of every single surface, creating a malevolent, unpleasant sound. It is not the least bit musical, just a sound. His eyes are obscured by dark glasses, giving him a frightening and unapproachable appearance. He paces erratically like a caged animal, spitting out familiar lyrics to classic rock songs, although he has chosen to realign them along nearly unrecognizable melodies. Hearing only bits of song phrases as I hurry to catch my train, I've wracked my brain trying to identify the song in question, only to have it hit me twenty minutes later — the garbled musical refrain throwing off the familiarity of the lyrics.

I have never seen a dime in his upended hat. I have never seen him acknowledge a single passerby. I have only seen him howl his unintelligible versions of Lennon and McCartney compositions (at least that's what I think they were) directly into the grimy marble tiles of the train station, in a manner reminiscent of a troubled man practicing primal scream therapy, not one attempting to entertain an audience.

If walls could talk...

*The word "buscar," in Spain, now refers to prostitutes.

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