Tag Archives: Embarcadero

Honor the craft: Busking is not begging

In a city known for its commitment to public art, I have to wonder why so often we treat its diverse artists with so much disdain.

The more I look, the more I see it and the more unsettling it is.

On a recent glorious Bay Area weekend, I ended up wandering around down in the heart of Tourist Central, the San Francisco Waterfront between Market street, the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. San Francisco is chock full of things to see but nothing so attracts visitors as sun, sea and shops, not to mention the notable Alcatraz tour, a newly built port for cruise ships, an artisan craft market and one of the busiest farmer’s market you’d ever see smack in the middle of the greatest city on the planet.

Suffice to say, people were everywhere.

Right along with them were a mainstay of San Francisco, the artists who perform for cash. Right along with them were the food and housing insecure folks who sit and wait for handouts and/or panhandle tourists for whatever they can get.

I know quite a few of the homeless in this neighborhood. Most suffer from the usual array of mental illness and drug addiction. Most will ask for a dollar or two without incident or aggression. Still the disdain on people’s faces as they pass is notable to anyone who really looks. The homeless: they look. They notice. They experience it.

But the street artists also confront their fair share of annoyance not at all dissimilar from the panhandlers. In short, people view all these residents of this great city as a nuisance, even though the most common thing they share is our disapproval. Street performers are not panhandlers, but we too often treat them the same. Poorly. 

As I wandered the city, the music and energy the artisans brought filled the air with something more than the bustle and anxiety of crowds trying to all get somewhere. Almost like listening to a radio dial, I’d hear the sounds of a country tune on a stand-up bass, meld into the metallic drums of Jamaica, which soon morphed into the laughter of people watching a magician or a the squeak of a man molding animals from balloons. In quieter times I have sat on a balcony and heard a violin being played in a nearby park with a sound so pure it could be a CD.

It’s not just a city thing. During a jog on an early-ish morning through downtown Ashland, Ore. I heard a violin being played even though few were out on the streets. I veered hard left across the street and dropped money in her case as I jogged by. I think I scared the crap out of her, but she never stopped playing.

How can any of this be a nuisance, I wondered. 

Regardless of your politics of homelessness, the art of performing in public–busking is the correct term–goes back as far as time likely does. Musicians and storytellers were the wisdom keepers of the tribe. Jewish culture is often sung, not read, from the Psalms. Kings and queens had their jesters and the great artists of the renaissance found their craft supported largely by patrons who simply wanted artists and their art nearby as a cultural enhancement.

Famous musicians have played on street corners, either before their fame as the likes of Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman, or after they were big but headed out to the streets simply to perform, like the famous clip of Neil Young’s unmistakable voice playing banjo in Europe back in 1976. Bon Jovi is known to take to the streets time and again, and most famously Paul McCartney once went out and busked for video of a song.  Perhaps the greatest rocker of all time caught how people simply didn’t want to notice him:

“They just made me up and dropped me off. […] So I was standin’ there plunkin’ chords, doing this silly version of the song, and no one noticed it was me. No one wants to look a busker in the eye, of course, ‘cus then they get his life story. So they’d toss coins and I’d be going ‘Yesterday, all my troubles – thank you, sir – seemed so far away.'”

If we are annoyed by Paul McCartney something’s kinda haywire with our built-in prejudices.

So why the disdain? Because many hawk CDs or perhaps have an open instrument case to accept passing donations? It makes no sense to me. I’ve tried to wrap my head around seeing these musicians and performers as a pain the ass and I just can’t make the pieces fit. Buskers are not panhandlers.


The more I thought about this in my wandering, the more my meager dollars flew out of my pocket into cans and bags and guitar cases, the more frustrated I became. I texted a friend and said, “I’m having a crisis of confidence with humanity right now.” Thankfully I didn’t have to explain it. It was just an ache, like a bruise that arrives but you can’t recall how it got there.

I’ve found that whenever I get too high and mighty life kicks my legs out. So I guess I wasn’t at all surprised when riding on BART from an assignment in Oakland, I felt annoyance as a guy stood to make an announcement on the train as it ducked under the bay.

I don’t mind panhandlers at all, but I don’t want them on the trains. It’s too close, too stuck, too intrusive even for those like me who don’t mind panhandlers on the streets. My own hypocrisy began to seep out of my skin.

I tuned out the announcement and even rolled my eyes as he pulled out his guitar and began to sign, soon accompanied by his two sons.

My first reaction: “Oh geez dude, get an EFFin life. Don’t pimp your kids on a commuter train.”

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Then I listened. They played Take me Home, Country Roads, a beloved song from my childhood that couldn’t be more out of place on a Bay Area train played by a black family… on plastic tubs and kazoos no less! The song transformed my thoughts. I pulled off my own headphones which were blaring gangsta rap. The discordant thoughts, latent racism and classism, and everything seeming so out of whack caused my head to swirl to the lyrics of “…to the place, I belong, West Virgina, mountain mama… gotta take me home…”

My crisis of confidence in humanity was a crisis of confidence in my own selfish little self.

I made sure to look all three of them in the eyes. They were having fun. I smiled and nodded and clapped a bit. I dug out a five-spot and held it aloft as soon as they finished. I looked around and noticed others did the same.  The father made sure to say, “Don’t give it to me. It’s for them. It’s for their education.”

And I believed him. I didn’t even care if its some hustle. That’s not my issue. They played, I liked it, the commute was better, so I tipped them. I could care no more what they were about than the waiter I tip after a nice dinner, which is exactly how it should be.

“Don’t forget your bucket,” I said to one of the kids before they left to play for the next train.

“Don’t worry. I got a system,” he said with a wink. He was having fun. He was and EFFin Artist, man.

That night as I played guitar with my daughter who worked on picking up the ukulele, I asked, “What do you think of going up to North Beach and playing some songs so you can sing to people on the streets?”

“That’d be cool,” she said.

“It would. And you can keep whatever money they give you. Consider it a job.”

“Why not?” she said and nodded. “Sounds fun.”

Fun. She simply wanted to sing for others even if that meant on a busy street corner of one of the busiest corners of the greatest city on the planet. Why not, indeed.

Glimpse: On Earth as it is in Heaven

This is really one of those “to be continued” posts. To get the full flavor, click back one post here, before you read this.  But if you’d rather not, here’s the “what you missed” part like you see in sitcoms:

Heaven used to scare my silly. As a result I ran amok more often than not. Then I read books by this guy, and realized heaven is not “out there,” but “right here.” This now colors most of what I do including…. (big finish!) a novel I’m writing called, On Earth as it is in Heaven. 

There. you’re all caught up.

I think I love writing fiction more than most anything else I can do it day. I love sitting outside with friends drinking coffee and wasting time. I love sex. I love eating great food (with chocolate at the end). I love snowboarding (and wakeboarding and biking and hiking and other stuff of its ilk). I love when an ocean wave hits me smack in the face. I love writing novels. I think that’s the top five (err… six?).  When I started to realize that I could likely do some form of all of this in heaven, my view of life and the life to come, and really the whole freaking purpose of this thing called me, made a lot more sense.  Ponder that. Does your view of the life to come mean you can do the things you love? I suspect it should. When I think of streets of gold, I see the Embarcadero colored in dusk lights and San Francisco Giants fever (see photo above). That’s heaven.

One of the characters in my novel I have came to love is an old Italian priest named Joe (Uncle to the story’s flawed heroine Annabel). In a portion of the book over drinks in a fun San Francisco restaurant in the heart of SoMa, Joe explains this notion of heaven on earth to an agnostic scientist named Sam (she’s a she… despite the masculine name). I think he does a nice job of it, so I’ll let him speak.


Annabel nodded. They all drank. Formalities and titles dispersed, they were seated and orders placed. The grip of social tension released its grasp on her shoulders. Despite herself Annabel soon grew immersed in the spirited debate. Sam maintained an aggressive, friendly offensive on Uncle Joe’s unshakable faith. Uncle Joe, in his self-effacing style, refused to cede ground, staunchly defending his assurance that God remained alive and well.

“So we just wallow around here amid all the depravity until we croak and if we’re lucky we get zapped up to live in streets of gold and play harps of praise for eternity,” Sam chided.

“Evangelical sentimentality,” Joe groused with a dismissive waive of his thick, hairy hand. “Americans have created an entire mythology around heaven that would shock the likes of St. Augustine. It looks nothing, absolutely nothing like heaven as the desert fathers and mothers envisioned.”

“So what’s your heaven like?” Sam said.

“I’m just arrogant enough to believe it is not what my heaven looks like but very much the real thing,” Joe said. “The short answer is very much like this. La buana vita.”

Joe spread his hands and looked around the restaurant.

“The good life,” Annabel translated.

Sam smirked. “I understood that one.”

“My Uncle Joe takes very seriously the Lord’s prayer,” Annabel said. “From the time I was little he taught me that Jesus of all people knew what he was doing in prayer, so when he said ‘when ye pray, pray like this,’ he meant it.”

“Absolutely!” Joe chimed in. “And he prayed, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. On Earth…’” Joe emphasized, pointing around the room, “as it is in heaven. Heaven is not up there in the stars for goodness sakes. We’ve been up there. All the way to the edge of the Solar System. Nobody’s run into the angel with the flaming sword protecting the Garden of Eden yet. Heaven is right here… Sulla Terra come in Cielo!

“On Earth as it is in heaven,” Annabel again translated. “He speaks Italian when gets excited. His parishoners love it, but only a few can understand him anymore.”

“Sadly,” Joe said.

Sam laughed and flipped her hair behind her ears.

“Joe, I’ve studied your Augustine and read through your Catholic history.” Sam said. “I don’t know too many Catholics talking this way. I dare say your own church might have torched your ass at the stake for saying these things once upon a time.”

Joe gave a hearty laugh.

“It’s not so heretical,” he said. “Nor is two thousand years of Catholic thought so linear. It’s a wide river of theology and faith; these views, as I say, aren’t my own, but flow from a deep, ancient stream of orthodoxy long before the Evangelicals began to claim inerrancy the last few decades. Besides, I’d argue these views are not too different than Augustine’s City of God.”

A large smile spread across Annabel’s deep red lips. She loved her uncle most of times like these, his reserve loosened by the company and the wine and his passion and intelligent faith unleashed from behind the constraint of his clerical collar.

“So if heaven’s on Earth.” Sam said. “Where are all the saints? Where’s God? Where’s your Garden of Eden?”

“Oops,” Annabel said happily. “You’ve been caught in his trap.”

Sam looked at Annabel and then back to Joe and back again.

“I knew you two were scheming with all the Italian when I came in!”

“Oh no,” Annabel said. “This was all you’re doing. You’re asked the questions. You took his bait.”

“Annabel you imply chicanery. I have merely helped escort Sam beyond the dogma of today to find a more authentic picture.” Joe said, feigning injury.

Now Annabel waved him off. He continued.

“Heaven is all around us, interwoven in the fabric of God’s creation, not built separately, at all.”

He held his thick fingers near, as if clasping, but not touching.

“Reread these miracles of Jesus and see what he was doing. He wasn’t performing magic. He was aligning heaven and earth exactly as it was originally created. Five thousand spiritual sojourners are hungry. ‘Why feed them,’ Jesus insists, as if it makes all the sense in the world. The loaves and fish are bountiful and prove plentiful by the simple faith of a prayer: that they would be fed, on Earth just as they would be in heaven. Thus, they are fed, and abundant leftovers remain. This looks like heaven to me.

“Same thing for the transformation. He and his inner circle of disciples trudge up a mountain for a heavenly meeting with Elijah and Moses, likely bringing further instruction or assurance to Jesus for the mission that lay ahead. Peter is so stunned he merely wants to build tents. Why? To stay, of course. Egli è in cielo! He’s in heaven, right there on Earth. It’s the most natural reaction in the world. If we stumbled into heaven, wouldn’t we want to pitch a tent and hang around?”

Joe reconnected his fingers, shifting them together, clasped.

“When by faith we breakthrough, it is like the tumblers align, the curtain between us–how we are, and us how it’s supposed to be… in fact how it will be — is removed. We see Jesus’ prayer answered. That is heaven.”

Joe took a quick breath and scanned his audience. Pleased at the rapt attention, he ventured further, telling a story about the angel with fiery sword at the ready gaurding Eden for Millenia. His hand moved around excitedly, imagining the angel on guard. Sam and Annabel shared a pleasant glance, smiles across their faces.

“But see, God put him there because he had faith in us. He thought someday we’d have the faith to get back there. So he kept it guarded.”

“And the Garden of Eden?” Annabel asked, knowing full well the answer.

“It’s right there! Likely. I feel pity for that angel assigned to guard the gate. No one that we know ever challenged him. But it is right there where God put it, right here on Earth. And so far we’ve been collectively too daft to figure it out.”

Sam stared at Joe, eyes wide, engrossed in the image. Annabel had seen these reactions before. She had felt it herself many times, this Ah-ha feeling that comes when something just clicks and suddenly seems obvious.

“So,” Sam said. “What do we do when we go through the wormhole to the other side?”

“This!” Joe said happily. “We eat, we talk, we love. We create! Can you imagine what Mozart has dreamed up over the last several hundred years?! What Da Vinci has painted? I can’t. But I know I can’t wait to see it.”

“So I’ll still be trying to figure out telomeres in heaven?” Sam said. “But people will already be immortal.”

“True, but your gift is investigation and experimentation. Your mind! Consider the things God will want you to solve? Amazing!”

Sam shook her head.

“Heaven where I still get to be a scientist…Now that is news to me. I can’t believe I’ve never heard this before. Joe, you really are a heretic…But I love it.”

“You may be right. Jesus was executed as a heretic after all. That tells you all you need to know about orthodoxy,” he said with a smile.