Sax on the Streets
Chapter 13:
Uppsala, Sweden


© Dan Gordon, 2003

Finally, new blood. The ups and downs of the previous two weeks in familiar busking territory had tried our spirits, our patience, and our finances. We were eager to break new ground. Irma liked Uppsala, the old university town an hour north of Stockholm, so we hopped on the train in hopes of riding the wave of busking fortune that had begun in Stockholm.

We arrived, picked up a city map, and sniffed out the pedestrian zone. The wide, clean, black and white stone swath through the center of town hosted no other buskers. Gary and I pitched in a central location as Irma sat nearby to listen. The new surroundings offered a freshness that we had not felt in weeks; the duets lost the staleness that had crept into them of late. Yet the hat lay idle, speaking its clinking acknowledgement only sporadically. Gary and I would not give up. We refused to allow the hint of a tide that had welled in Stockholm to recede. We kept the energy level high as we played on.

Suddenly, inexplicably, momentum shifted. The hat rattled once, again, a few more times in rapid succession. Bills appeared. Before we knew it, the hat overflowed with 10-kroner notes. We’d seen a few of these bills in Stockholm, but in Uppsala we collected so many that we had to empty the hat of them in case a strong breeze came along and blew away our fortune.

As we stuffed the bills into our money pouch, a casually dressed Swedish man came along and struck up a conversation. He owned a café in town where he displayed the work of local artists, he told us in his sing-song Swedish accent. When he heard us play, he thought to try music there as well. He proposed that we perform in his café from four to five that evening. In exchange he’d pay us 150 kroner and all the pastries and coffee we liked.

It was finally happening again—those unexpected adventures that occurred with such regularity the summer before, but evaded us this time around. We immediately accepted his offer, got directions to the café, and arranged to meet a few hours later.

Now engaged to play for the evening, we packed up to rest for a while. Irma was all excited about the invitation. This was, after all, her first unexpected busking escapade. She watched as I dumped the hatful of coins into our change pouch already choked with 10 kroner bills. “Did you get crank?” she asked. Despite her formidable foreign language skills in English, German, and Swedish, Irma never did quite get the hang of this phrase that Gary and I made up.

“Crank, Irma, crank. Did you crank,” I laughed. “Yes, we cranked all right.” In fact, we had made 230 kroner, translating to about $17 an hour apiece, our highest rate yet for the summer. We never expected such success in a little place like Uppsala. But this was not the first time we had done well in a small town; we were surprised in the little Danish town of Ringkøbing the summer before as well as in Bordeaux, the small French city. The circumstances that we came across in these places demonstrate what I call “small-town phenomenon.” Street musicians tend to focus on major cities and ignore little towns. Consequently, smaller locales frequently offer exceptional busking. Not tiny villages in the middle of nowhere, but small and medium-sized cities that still attract tourists. Such off-the-beaten-track places offer the busker several advantages. He has little or no competition, he is a novelty to the townsfolk, and he has much less chance of annoying shop owners since they are not constantly barraged by unsolicited music.

Uppsala, then, turned out to be an excellent place to busk. The surprise invitation to the café fortified our already healthy monetary success. In order to look proper for the evening’s performance, we visited the nearest public bathroom and cleaned up. Two traveling street musicians can’t transform themselves into anything elegant, but after donning our best jeans and least-wrinkled T-shirts, we looked presentable.

At four o’clock, Irma, Gary, and I arrived at the café. A large wrought-iron sign over the door read, “Galleri Dombron,” just as the directions indicated. The owner greeted us, showed us in, and led us through several brick cave-like rooms painted white. The first had a pastry counter in one corner. On the walls in the following rooms hung original artwork, illuminated by track lighting from the arched ceiling. Oak tables and chairs filled the hardwood floor.

“I’ve never seen a place quite like this before,” I told the man. “Is this an art gallery, or a café?”

“A little of both,” he replied. “I’ve always been interested in art, so I got the idea to display the work of local artists here. I offer this space to young artists who have a difficult time finding a place to show their work. You two didn’t seem to have much trouble finding a place to display your talents this afternoon, but I thought classical music would fit in well.” We continued through to the back lawn, a long triangular yard dotted with tables for coffee-sipping clients. A babbling brook formed the edge of the green. “Here is where I’d like you to play,” he said. “You can start whenever you like.”

The pastoral surroundings provided an appropriate setting for Telemann, as the owner hoped. We serenaded the patrons as they perused the art over cappuccinos and pastry. The babbling brook provided far better accompaniment than babbling pedestrians. Away from the bustle of the pedestrian zone, we could hear birds chirping as we played.

Afterwards, Irma, Gary and I sat down for coffee ourselves and chatted with the owner about his café, our travels, and the town of Uppsala. “Nothing so special,” the man said about his town. “An old university, many young people, a quiet lifestyle.” And one delightful, cozy café.

As we left, the man thanked us profusely for our efforts. We owed him as much thanks as he gave us. He paid us more than he had promised, which brought our earnings for the day to a record $44 apiece. No doubt about it—this was cranking.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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