Basket of Strange, or, Busking at BART

I understand why there are always buskers at Civic Center BART. Great tips, but a very gritty place. I think the best thing about it is that we’re all equals there. Literally every class of transit rider goes through there, from the sharp suits to the homeless. You have to be able to hold your own, because you’re on your own there, but people will talk to you, and they’ll even stand and listen. It is the only BART station where I’ve been able to hold any sort of audience.

Timing matters. Rush hour is rush hour wherever you stand. When the majority of the people are in commuterspace, everyone will catch the vibe and keep moving. Since I have a long corridor to catch their ears, they’ll tip anyway, and it’s a rare person who will stop. Midday, there are long pauses between the flow of people. Since there’s a public telephone and an electrical connection there, it’s a community resource as well and when the flow of people is low, people will use those things.

Yesterday it was like a community room. When I got there a guy was sitting there painting a design on his messenger bag. When I started playing, he gave me a dirty look and packed up. Then two kids came by to charge their phones and talk. They gave me a glimpse of community, as people they knew kept passing by. It didn’t hurt that they liked what they were hearing and told me so. It was valuable experience for me, learning how to make space to play while keeping up an intermittent conversation. Another guy set up panhandling down the corridor from me, and he also wanted to talk. In the end, I played him to sleep, which was a good feeling. He’d given me a catalog of who played down here and what he thought of them in the meantime, which was also an interesting window on the world. I also had another busker come up and tell me what was what. He was trying to intimidate me out of the space, and was a bit put out when it didn’t work. But this isn’t the first time that’s happened, and there is space enough for all.

Really, there is space enough for all of us, no matter who we are or how unusual we are. That’s a hard truth to hold on to in a world where life is getting harder and the pressure to conform has real teeth in it. You pay a price for nonconformity in any age, but lately it’s been getting steeper. There are more of us out on the streets, and the lines we are supposed to stay inside are brighter and clearer every day.

I think the price of staying inside them is higher, personally. The rewards of knowing who you are are much greater. The older I get, the more I see this. My closet may be full of strange clothes–but I like them. My house may not have a fashionable address, but when I step inside I’m home. My books surround me right now, the most interesting wallpaper I can imagine. And my head is full of music. All the time. The more I stand in those BART stations, the more the songs come back to me, like a flock of birds, coming home to roost, flying out into the world and perhaps resting in someone else’s head for a moment, or for longer. The older faces that tip me often have a secret smile on their faces when I sing something like “Bread and Roses,” or “Matty Groves,” and I know they remember too.

Where have you crossed the lines? What magic have you discovered outside them? How can you bring it back into the world?

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