Sing for your Supper
Among other interesting benefits of getting older
are those opportunities that occasionally arise to observe younger
people doing something that we ourselves did when we were their age
... to see events from the 'other side', with adult eyes. Of course
this happens almost every day when watching one's own children, but
it also happens at other times as well, as it did to me recently when
strolling in Kyoto with Sadako.
We were passing through Maruyama Park, moving
slowly in the general direction of Kiyomizu-dera, although with no
particular destination in mind. As we approached the open space at
the centre of the park, we seemed to hear the sound of a radio
playing, but coming closer, found that it wasn't a broadcast; it was
live - a busker performing for the pigeons and strollers. He was
quite well organized, and had a miniature P/A system set up so he
could sing into a microphone to have his voice 'processed' and mixed
with the sound of his guitar. He had arranged a comfortable seat,
with his guitar case laying open on the ground in front of him. As
his voice was pleasant, and he smiled a lot, his case seemed to be
filling up with donations quite nicely.
Seeing him there though, I must admit that I did
feel a bit of irritation at first ... Who is this guy, to disturb my
sunny day in the park? But although I am getting older, I hope I can
avoid becoming such a crusty old curmudgeon. I put away such
thoughts, and just enjoyed his singing for a few minutes as we
strolled past ...
And of course, how could I possibly harbour
negative thoughts towards a busker in the park? Could I have so
easily forgotten ... a cold, cold winter in London, England nearly 23
years ago? Another young busking musician ... Not with microphone and
guitar, but just his flute ... No, I hadn't forgotten ...
I was twenty. A year or so earlier, I had
abandoned an unsuccessful flirtation with university, and having
returned to my parents' home from residence at school, was doing ...
not much of anything. I dabbled at guitar building and music teaching
for night school classes, worked a bit in my father's small music
shop, and also built some simple furniture. My stated goal was to
become a classical flute player, but in reality there wasn't much
progress being made towards that end. Although my parents were
generally patient with my aimlessness, they obviously came over time
to feel that 'something had to be done'. I would be over-dramatizing
if I told you that they 'kicked me out of the house', but I guess
they must have felt that unless they applied a bit of stimulus, I
would 'amount to nothing'. And so it was that one day that autumn I
found myself on an airplane heading for England, on a one-way ticket.
My flute was in my suitcase, and in my wallet was the equivalent of about 100 dollars,
along with a slip of paper on which was written the telephone number
of one of my father's oldest friends, a well-known drummer in the pop
and jazz scene in London ...
Cut to nearly one week later ... our hero, sitting
in his rented room in Hammersmith, London. In his pocket, there are
now only two or three pounds. In his suitcase, now two flutes. He is
imagining tomorrow's conversation with the landlord ... "Good
morning, Mr. Bull. It's time for the weekly rent payment today ..."
"Er, yes ... er ... um ... er ... "
As embarrassing as it seems to report it now, I
had got myself in a bit of a silly jam. One day during that first
week, just after I had located and rented a suitable room, but before
I had done anything about finding work, or finding a place to study
flute, or getting settled down at all, I had fallen in love ...
Fallen in love with a beautiful wooden flute I had seen in a music
shop. A flute that, when I tried it out, had called to me, "I'm
yours! Let's make music together!" What can I say? I was young,
inexperienced ... and a pushover. We walked out of the shop together.
Rent money? Oh, I'll think about that later ...
And now it was later. Of course, there was always
that piece of paper and the telephone number ... But that was
impossible. To call up that busy and successful man, and admit defeat
after less than a week? Impossible! I may not have acted very
responsibly with my money, but there was no power on earth that would
make me call that man, confess 'defeat', and ask for help. No power
But the rent was due, and I would soon be getting
hungry. Something had to be done. One of my walks around London that
week had brought me to that area on the South Bank of the Thames that
housed a group of concert and recital halls. I had stood for a while
outside the Royal Festival Hall there, watching the people going in
for a performance by one of London's famous orchestras, and had
daydreamed that one day they would be coming to hear me playing in
It occurred to me now that perhaps it wasn't
necessary to wait ... Why not play for them now, outside the hall.
All those hundreds of classical music lovers - if they were to hear
my beautiful playing ... wouldn't they be willing to make some small
That evening I went over there to try it out. The
main doors through which attendees entered the building opened onto a
concrete plaza facing the river. The nearest train station, Charing
Cross, was just on the other side of the river, and streams of people
were making their way towards the hall, walking across a pedestrian
bridge. I was very nervous as I 'set up' in a suitable place: near
the building wall where the sound of my flute would be projected out
across the concrete plaza and over the water. It seemed like a
perfect location. My 'customers' would be able to hear the music for
a good five minutes or so as they came gradually closer across the
bridge ... and would then have to pass directly in front of me, and
my open flute case, to enter the hall.
Case open on the ground in front of me, I started.
I can still remember the first piece I played; a showy little etude
full of cascading arpeggios and runs. A million notes packed into
just a few bars. I was astonished at the sound that came out. Each
note seemed to hang in the air, and travel for miles. Perhaps the
water was acting as a sounding board, or perhaps there was some kind
of echo from the buildings across the river ... It was a magnificent
location. No matter how opulent the concert hall at my back may have
been inside, it couldn't have sounded as good as this!
A coin fell into the case. I nodded a wordless
'thank you' and continued playing. Another ... then another ... then
more and more ... I had to give up nodding. It was impossible to
continue playing while bobbing up and down so much. About thirty
minutes or so later, the stream of concert goers petered out to
almost nothing. The real concert in the hall must have been about to
begin. Mine was over.
I stared at my flute case in absolute
astonishment. It was almost buried under the pile of money. Most
contributions were the large and heavy 10p coins, but there was paper
money also, plenty of it. I had no bag with me, no way to carry it
all, so I stuffed coins into every pocket I could find in my trousers
and jacket, front back and inside, and then started home, jingling at
every step. The money problems seemed to be over. The concert hall
schedule posted on the kiosks all around the area showed that there
were symphony concerts held there every night of every week. It was
apparently going to be possible to make a living from my flute
And so it was. I didn't 'go to work' every day, as
the English weather certainly didn't permit that, but spending only a
few evenings each week giving my short concerts provided enough
income for a very comfortable living. My daytime hours were spent
walking around London, taking in the museums, parks and street life,
but I always adjusted my wandering to make sure that I would arrive
at the South Bank in time to 'greet' the concert crowds.
My new 'job' turned out to have an important side
benefit - thanks to my busking activities, I was able to get inside
the hall too. Not on the stage of course, but in the audience. As I
was cleaning up the over-flowing case after my performance one
evening, I found, mixed in with the money, a concert ticket ... a
ticket to that evening's concert. As soon as I realized what it was,
I quickly gathered my things together, headed inside, and made my way
to the seat marked on the ticket. Of course everybody was already
seated, and the music was about to begin. Can you picture the scene
... this guy in shabby clothes, his pockets all stuffed to bursting
with coins, jingling his way towards the empty seat in the middle of
the row of elegantly dressed London concertgoers? "Er ... excuse me
..." jingle jingle "... pardon me ..." jingle jingle ...
I wonder now whether the gentleman who had tossed
the ticket into my case, perhaps on impulse, perhaps in anger at
being 'stood up' by his date, had really foreseen the consequence -
that this rather scruffy busker would end up sitting beside him for
the next couple of hours! I'm sure he soon regretted his action; I
wasn't a 'sociable' person at all, too shy to make even the simplest
of conversation. But it was certainly an adventure for me. (It also
turned out that busking would get me an entry to backstage as well,
but I think I'd better save that for another time ...)
Finding a ticket in my upturned flute case was an
event that came to be repeated fairly frequently. I became better
prepared for it, trying to wear more presentable clothes, and
obtaining a simple briefcase in which I could dump all that money,
enabling me to get to 'my' seat without too much embarrassment. So I
was not only supplying my financial needs with this job, but also my
But as the autumn wore on, it started to become
apparent that playing flute outdoors on an exposed riverbank had
certain drawbacks. It started to get very cold ... Playing flute with
gloves on is next to impossible, but I found that by cutting off just
the tips of the fingers, I could fashion a pair that would keep my
hands from freezing completely.
I ran into another problem one night. When I
arrived to start 'work', I found another busker working the area.
Perhaps he had watched me staggering away with my pile of coins the
night before, and thought that this was too good a chance to pass up.
Had he been someone similar to myself, say a young violin student, or
someone like that, I would have shrugged my shoulders and left him
alone, but I didn't feel so benevolent in this case; he was an old
wino. He was so drunk he could barely stand, and sucked uselessly at
a harmonica as he wandered around the plaza, clutching at the
clothing of the people passing by. I wasn't about to miss my
evening's work because of this old guy, so I set up as usual, and
started to play. When he heard my flute, he wandered over to confront
me. I had expected this, and was ready to make a deal with him,
sending him off with a few coins in his pocket, but I wasn't prepared
for what actually happened.
He stood watching me for a moment, and then
suddenly staggered forward and grabbed the end of my flute. People
who have had some experience of flutes know that they come in three
pieces which are assembled before playing, but I'm sure that he
didn't know this, for when the piece that he grabbed came off in his
hand, he was completely stunned. He obviously thought that he had
broken it, and just as obviously thought he was now in big trouble.
He started to apologize profusely, handed me back the 'broken' piece,
and scurried away.
I put the instrument back together, and got on
with the work. I'm sure that the 20-year old me was thinking
something like, "Stupid old sot! I'm playing real music here,
offering these people something worthwhile in exchange for their
coins. You're just an old panhandler. Keep out of my way!" But
looking back on it now, I wonder if there really was that much
difference between us ... we were both just trying to get something
It was shortly after this that I had the
experience that put an end to my solo 'career' at the Festival Hall.
The weather had been bad for a number of days running, and I was
casting about for an alternate location to the river-front plaza; a
place where I could play under cover, but still catch the stream of
concertgoers. I found that patrons for the concert hall also
approached the building from the large Waterloo Station located a
short distance away in a different direction, walking through a
series of covered walkways ... The largest of these walkways was
sited just at the exit from the station, and I thought that if I
played there, then I could 'catch' not only concertgoers, but also
large numbers of people going about other business.
I gave it a try one evening, but hadn't been
playing for more than a couple of minutes when I suddenly found
myself face to face with two rather unfriendly listeners to my
concert ... two 'bobbies', London policemen. All these years later, I
can't remember what it was they said to me, but I can remember what
they did. A minute later there I was, briefcase under my arm, walking
between the two of them as we made our way towards the local police
station. I was being 'taken in'.
And I can certainly remember what I was thinking.
Are they going to make me phone my parents? What am I going to say
... "Uh, hi Dad! How are things? Good, good! Say, I've got a little
problem here ... I've ... uh ... I've just been arrested ... No, no
I'm not joking ... I've been arrested for vagrancy. They want you to
come over and bail me out ..." Were these policemen going to put me
in jail? Me, in jail? Would I have to go to court? What was going to
happen now ...
As it turned out, I never was to find out what
they had in mind for me. We didn't make it to the police station. No,
I didn't make a dramatic escape, nor were they suddenly diverted to
something more important. I was rescued by ... of all people, a bag
lady. This woman materialized suddenly in front of us, and started
asking the bobbies a number of questions: Why were they taking me in?
... What had I done? It now seems inconceivable to me that they even
talked to her, instead of just pushing her aside and continuing on.
But they did. And not only did they talk to her, but after a couple
of minutes of 'negotiation', they released me ... into her care. She
grabbed me by the arm and steered me into a nearby tea shop, and they
moved off and continued on their rounds.
It was like some kind of weird dream. Here I was,
sitting sipping a glass of murky tea together with a real live bag
lady, a disgustingly dirty bag lady, complete with a collection of
gigantic bags full of junk. I couldn't imagine which was worse, to be
in custody of the two policemen on the way to the station, or to be
with her. I vaguely remember her as being quite amiable, and
concerned about my welfare. Did I have any money? A place to sleep?
But my overwhelming desire was just to get away from there; to get
away from her, away from the policemen, away from that station ...
just get back to my room ... Eventually, I was able to break away,
thank her for the 'rescue' and the tea, and get home, pockets empty,
but full of relief at not having had to make that phone call.
I never busked again. I learned about a 'labour
exchange' near Charing Cross Station, and to support myself, started
going there Monday mornings, signing on as a casual labourer for a
week at a time, a new job in a new location every week. Thinking back
to these events now, I suppose that little 'run-in' with the police
was a good experience to have had. It cured me of 'begging', got me
off the streets and into more gainful employment, and certainly left
me determined not to ever get on the wrong side of the law ever
But actually that wasn't the last time I have ever
been involved with the police. There was also the time that I was
'taken in' by the RCMP in Canada for smuggling ... But I guess that
should probably be another story ...