I’m playing music on Market Street in front of Westfield Mall in San Francisco as I’ve been doing a few times a week for the past month. I had recently quit my full-time job to open up the space to do this music thing full-time. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I’m still not. The surreal thing about busking in the city is the intersection of people from all different sectors of society. The young, hip, wealthy people don’t stop for s*** as they make their way to their tech and finance jobs – on a mission to conquer the world. The starry-eyed tourists stare upwards in awe, trying to take the city in. I stand on the sidewalk next to a bus stop in competition with other street performers and people who are panhandling. All of us in the same space, yet with drastically different stories and circumstances. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, I have been out for about 2 hours and there has been steady foot traffic.
I feel exposed. Only about 1 in 50 people stop to listen, but with thousands of people passing by every hour those numbers are not bad. Most of the people who stop are tourists who have time to take in what’s actually around them. To them, I am a staple of the environment, so much so that some of them even ask to take pictures next to me. I start to play “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, which captures a few people at once, drawing others in with their energy. Soon I have a crowd of about a dozen folks listening and taking videos for their Instagram stories, connecting with my offering and validating this path I’ve chosen. In this moment there is a bit of magic in the air, and I see my tip jar quickly fill with 1s, 5s and 10s.
In the middle of belting out “I think you’re crazy, just like me,” a man rushes by and grabs my tip jar. It takes less than a second to process what is happening. I immediately stop the song as my body floods with adrenaline. For a half-second I consider letting him go. I haven’t been playing for very long and can still make a decent amount of money, but that thought passes as soon as it comes. It is replaced by the reality of my situation; this is my only income now and there’s a lot of money in that jar. I drop my guitar and sprint after him. He’s running pretty fast, and I’m afraid I won’t catch him. But after a block of chasing him he slows down almost as if guilt has taken hold of him. I catch up and grab him by the arm. He is a tall skinny man. He turns to look at me with wide, sunken, glazed over eyes. I see desperation. I reach for my tip jar, afraid I will have to yank it out of his hand, but to my surprise he lets it go immediately. Part of me has no compassion and thinks “f*** this guy.” Another part of me feels for him, and I wonder about his story.
I jog back to my spot and hear cheers as though I am Rocky Balboa in that famous scene in Rocky II where he’s running through Philly in preparation for his big fight. There are more people waiting for me to return – money in hand – than were listening to me before my tip jar got stolen. When I get back to my spot one man says, “I watched your guitar for you, you shouldn’t just leave it here.” Others say “that guy was an asshole” and “you should be more cautious with your money.” A flood of dollar bills flow into my tip jar and it occurs to me that these people care. Even though they hadn’t all stopped to listen to me, they were aware of my presence and appreciated what I was doing. I felt seen.
As I reflect on this experience now, I feel torn because on one hand I felt really great about successfully defending my resources and about the fact that people on the street rallied in my support. On the other hand everyone, myself included, was dismissive of the needs of this desperate man who obviously needed help. In other words, I was seen and elevated while this other man was essentially made invisible. I wonder about his story.