Monday, September 1, 2008

Busking Ethics

Hey, buskers! Are you nicer to people who give you big tips than to those who give you itty-bitty ones? How do you handle weirdoes?

This was my ethical dilemma the last two Saturdays when I played my accordion at Giddings Plaza on Chicago’s North Side. My official policy is to treat everyone with respect and gratitude whether they give me a couple pennies or a $20 bill. My attitude is I’m there to have a good time, talk to people, play songs I like, try out new tunes, and enjoy the atmosphere of “no pressure”. The money is secondary, although if I weren’t allowed to put out a tip jar I wouldn’t busk.

On August 23 as I was talking to a woman from Cluj, Romania who recognized some of my songs, an aggressive panhandler approached us. “Can ya spare some change? I’m hungry and homeless,” he whined right in our faces. More out of a desire to not look like a cheapskate than to help him, I pulled out a dollar from my tip jar and handed it to him. I just wanted him to go away so I could jump back into the conversation. I was supremely irritated despite the fact that I could more than afford to help him out. First because he interrupted me and second because I felt I had let him bully me into relinquishing something I had earned. He didn’t even bother to compliment my playing.

Saturday, August 30 was a New Moon. What you start at New Moon comes to fruition at the next Full Moon so I was determined to start at least one new thing. I had just learned a song that day, Badea-l meu de astă vară (My Sweetheart from Last Summer, a Romanian song from Transilvania) and played it twice that night. I was rocking out. People were obviously into it, judging from all the compliments and tips I was getting. It was a great night for another reason, three six-sensory friends, Kate, Karen and Carol had come to have dinner at Café Selmarie, hang out at the Plaza and listen to me play. With those three shooting good vibes at me I couldn’t go wrong. Halfway through the evening Karen went to Potbellies to get me a roast beef sandwich. It was cut in two. I ate half of it and wrapped the other half carefully, intending to save it for later.

The evening wore on and the tips and compliments kept coming. My friends, having spent more than three hours there, went home. Up came Sir Panhandles-A-Lot. This time it was, “Can ya help me out? I’m hungry and I need to get something to eat.” In my face. This time I was ready. “Wait ’til I finish this,” I shot back. No way was I going to interrupt Sikoreczka świergoli (The Skylark Sings, from Cieszyn, Poland) for that guy. He sat down on a bench and tried to engage a woman in conversation. She was complicit for a moment, but quickly vamoosed. Not only did he horn in when I was busy playing, but he was driving away my audience! I kept playing and formulated my strategy. By the time he hit me up again I was ready. “I have a sandwich for you,” I said. “I need money,” he replied. “You said you were hungry, and I have a perfectly good sandwich. Take it or leave it.”

“You can’t help me out?”

“Sorry.” And off he went. Did I do the right thing?

Late in the evening I noticed a guy sitting on a bench applauding every song I played. He was balding and wore glasses. In other words, he looked intelligent. But as I was packing up he approached me and the reality was much different. He was plastered. “Wish I could give you some money,” he slurred, “but I own an apartment building and I’m waiting for the rent.” Uh…not likely. I responded politely to his ramblings for a few minutes and looked at the photo of himself with Little Wally he was eager to show me. “Very nice,” I said without enthusiasm and faded into the darkness.

Did I do the right thing?

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