The telephone rang in the bedroom of my Manhattan apartment.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Dan? This is Gary.” “Hey! What’s up? I haven’t heard from you in a while. How have you been?”
“Oh, okay I guess, but all this school stuff is really getting to me. I was just sitting here at my desk with these books and junk all over the place, working on a paper that’s due tomorrow, and I looked up and saw my map of Europe hanging on the wall. My imagination took off. I got all excited and said to myself ‘Oh man, I gotta call Dan!’”
I laughed. “I’m glad to know that I am contributing to making you delinquent in your studies.”
“I’m telling you, Dan, I can’t concentrate on my work any more. I can’t stop thinking about last summer.”
“It was unbelievable, wasn’t it?”
“Remember Bonn?” he said. “That incredible steak dinner?”
“‘Enjoy this meal, Gary…’”
“And the champagne in the apartment in Paris?”
“How about the marching band in Ĺrhus?” I said.
“We can’t forget Dinant.”
“And the American Express office in Bordeaux.”
We roared with laughter.
“You know, Gary, my sister just found an au pair job in Paris,” I said. “When I found out about that, my adventurous juices really started flowing again. What’s it gonna take to talk you into doing it again this summer?” “Don’t tempt me, Dan.” He paused for a beat. “Is your sister really living in Paris?”
“Yeah, and we can visit her if we busk again.”
“I told you not to tempt me! I’d love to go, but I gotta save some money this summer. We can make enough to survive by busking, but I need to put some away.”
“Come on, you have the rest of your life to earn money.” I pleaded. “How many times are you going to get the chance to busk all summer long?”
“I have to admit, it does sound awfully good. I’ll tell you what—I’ll think about it.”
A few weeks later, Gary called again. “Dan, you talked me into it. All those memories of last summer have gotten the better of me. Let’s go busking!”
Another summer of duets was in order.
We considered busking in the USA for our second trip, since both of us had seen a lot of Europe and had never been across our own country. But we chose Europe again because we felt it had more attributes that were beneficial to street musicians. First were the all-important coin denominations. We didn’t think those small American coins would go very far. The density of cities in Europe was another factor, and all those pedestrian zones, which never seemed to catch on among American urban planners. If we traveled in the US, we would want to see the natural wonders: the parks, the canyons, the forests, places which don’t offer conditions conducive to busking. We also thought it was cheaper and easier to get around Europe, with bargain railpasses and trains that go just about everywhere. Plus, I had all those friends over in Europe that I genuinely missed in my year back home. I wouldn’t often get the chance to see them. So the street corners of Europe were to be our stage again.
I busked New York only once during my year back. I got wrapped up in my day-to-day obligations as a free-lance musician and never found more time for it. The pioneering spirit that compelled me while on vacation was missing in the mundane surroundings of home. In the back of my mind, this was another reason why we chose to busk Europe for the second trip. An voyage overseas was simply more adventurous.
I had to busk New York once though, to check out at least something of the American busking scene. The opportunity presented itself in the spring, when another saxophonist friend named Harry passed through town on the weekend of the annual 9th Avenue street fair. Automobile traffic was blocked off between 30th and 60th Streets, and shop owners brought their wares outdoors. The street became a human river with a flowing current of pedestrians. We went with the same act—the Telemann flute duets on two curved soprano saxophones—and pitched right in the middle of the flow to test the waters.
“Harry, we’re gonna rake in the bucks here. I’ve never had conditions as ideal as these,” I said as we unpacked our saxophones. “You watch what happens.”
“Dan, I’m so excited I can’t tell you!” he exclaimed in his Southern drawl. Harry is from Mississippi, and hardly expected to end up one day playing his saxophone on the streets of New York City. “I do feel kind of funny, though.”
“Don’t worry. When you see the response, you’ll get used to it in a hurry. You’re not gonna believe it.”
Even I didn’t believe it. Dollar bills flew everywhere. Money poured into Harry’s open case so fast that we had to empty it out every half hour to leave room. We caught the high spirits of blossoming spring at its peak and reaped its full benefits. In three hours we collected a mind-boggling $135.
“Well I’ll be dayummed! ” Harry twanged as we counted up our heaps of earnings in a nearby coffee shop. “Look at all this! Y’all Yankees are so generous! Those people were throwing dollar bills for days!”
“What’d I tell you, Harry? You still feel funny about playing on the street?”
“Hell no! Let’s play some more! I love it!”
“Now you’ve got an idea of what it’s gonna be like for Gary and me all summer long.”
Harry beamed at the thought of it. “Can I go with y’all?”
I was so excited I had to call Gary. “Gary, I have terrible news. After all the calculating we did in deciding to stick with Europe for busking again this summer, Harry and I played duets today at a street fair in New York and made over twenty bucks an hour apiece! That’s more than we ever made last summer. What are we going back to Europe for?!”
We answered that question for ourselves a few hours later. During our festive day on the street, someone broke into Harry’s car and made off with half of his belongings. Welcome to New York. Despite his bizarre introduction to busking, Harry was hooked. He spent the following summer on the streets of New Orleans playing solo soprano saxophone and made a living at it playing for three hours a day.
As for New York, regulations have affected the busking scene. The city has implemented a program called “Music Under New York,” or simply “MUNY,” for buskers wishing to perform in the subway or commuter rail terminals. Every year, about a hundred acts audition on a balcony in Grand Central Station. A panel of judges issues permits to about half of the auditionees. The audition is a public event, complete with a commuter train conductor who acts as master of ceremonies and introduces each act with a witty remark. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced when my turn came, “auditioning for the first time are these saxophone duets. We hope this will be the turnstile to their success.”
The MUNY program was instituted to control buskers who use amplified sound in their acts. If an act is acoustic, the busker is free to play anywhere in the subway without a permit. However, any busking in the two rail terminals, Grand Central and Penn Stations, requires a MUNY permit whether the act is amplified or not. Busking is not permitted there during rush hours. Two 3-hour blocks of off-peak time are allotted daily to permit holders.
But European busking was the focus my attention for the time being. Gary found a cheap flight to Amsterdam, and I flew up to his house near Buffalo a few days early to get things together before we departed from Toronto. Telemann flute duets on the two sopranos were still the order of the day—why knock a good thing? Our itinerary had much less shape than the year before; we planned only to meet up with a friend about three weeks later in Copenhagen and travel together for a couple of weeks. Other than that, we had no obligations to be anywhere by any given time except to be back in Amsterdam ten weeks later to fly home. As far as we were concerned, the less plans the better. We got railpasses and were ready to wing it—go wherever the impulse led us and figure it out when we got there. That, after all, is what busking is really all about.
Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630