The Noise Beneath The Apple

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The Latin root ‘busk’ can be traced back to ‘buskin, which was a dec­o­rated san­dal worn by Ro­man street per­form­ers. His­toric records from that time also in­di­cate the prac­tice of throw­ing coins to street per­form­ers; the first tips. From here, the trav­els and evo­lu­tion of the word busker are as var­ied and puz­zling as the pro­fes­sion itself.

In ob­so­lete French, ‘busque’r, was used to de­scribe an­other of the world’s old­est pro­fes­sions, a ser­vice ex­changed for alms; pros­ti­tu­tion. In Ital­ian, buskers were known as ‘bus­carsi’, stem­ming from the root “to pro­cure or gain.” In Spain, the root means “to seek”—as in seek­ing fame and for­tune. The most fa­mous early buskers are the gyp­sies, from Ro­ma­nia. The Ro­mani peo­ple are well known as for­tune tellers, dancers, mu­si­cians and wan­der­ing en­ter­tain­ers, and it is they who are cred­ited with bring­ing busking—the pro­fes­sion and the term—to England.

My fa­vorite as­so­ci­a­tion of the word ap­pears in 1851, in the writ­ings of Au­gus­tus Sep­ti­mus May­hew (an Eng­lish jour­nal­ist and au­thor), who used it in The Great­est Plague of Life while de­scrib­ing a lifestyle of shift­less, vagabond buskers—a lifestyle re­served for those lowly loot­ers and lib­ertines, the pirates.

Busk­ing his­tory is rich; filled with con­tro­versy, char­ac­ter and in­trigue. From med­i­cine shows in the early eigh­teen hundreds—complete with snake charm­ing, jug­gling and fire breathing—to one-man bands in the early nine­teen hun­dreds, busk­ing has been alive and well in the United States.

Buskers them­selves, fall into a myr­iad of cat­e­gories. There are those who cre­ate “cir­cle shows,” usu­ally draw­ing peo­ple into large crowds around them. These shows have a def­i­nite be­gin­ning and end; a skit, dance rou­tine, com­edy or ven­tril­o­quism. Then there’s café busk­ing, where per­for­mances are done in ex­change for tips—those tips of­ten col­lected via a “pass­ing of the hat” (Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Bob Dy­lan, started in this way and the 1973 hit, Pi­ano Man, by Billy Joel, was in­spired by his six months as a café busker in Los Angeles).

Still an­other type of busker is one who em­bod­ies a magic that is ex­clu­sively their own, yet ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily com­mu­nal. We walk by them, play­ing their gui­tars, singing their songs, per­form­ing their mu­sic. We may smile at them. We may not. We may hur­riedly drop a buck in their open gui­tar case. We may not. We may stop and watch. We may not.

In the world of this busker, none of these things mat­ter. They are there be­cause they be­long there. The streets have called them; the world un­der­foot has beck­oned them. Like The Vel­veteen Rab­bit, they be­come more real than the trains whizzing by, more con­crete than the sky­scrap­ers over­head. And they give the city a life and a breath, an un­der­cur­rent of alchemy that would not ex­ist if they were not there. They in­vite us to sing out of key, to dance out of step, not nec­es­sar­ily try­ing to dis­cern the mean­ing of life, but rather, to ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing truly alive.

These are their songs. These are their sto­ries. These are the com­mon threads that con­nect us all. And as we jour­ney into the heart of this breed of busker, we dis­cover, as Maya An­gelou says, “that we are more alike than unalike”.

It was Christ­mas 2009. I found my­self drink­ing rum, lis­ten­ing to rock & roll and re­flect­ing. Re­flect­ing is what we do at that time of year; the rum and rock & roll sim­ply make that re­flec­tion eas­ier to swallow.

I was liv­ing in Los An­ge­les. I had no boyfriend. I had no lover. I didn’t own a home or a dog; I didn’t even have an air fern. What the hell was I do­ing in Los Angeles?

Two weeks later, I was smack dab in the mid­dle of New York City. I found my­self in the midst of the mad, mad ones; those dar­ing souls who had taken their art to the streets and made the city their stage. They were with­out lim­its; bound­less; free from the shack­les of con­for­mity. I was mys­ti­fied and en­chanted, ex­actly like Mr. Ker­ouac had predicted.

I bought an un­lim­ited Metro Pass and be­gan ex­plor­ing the city’s nu­ances, her char­ac­ter, in the heart of win­ter. At the 59th/Columbus Cir­cle stop in the Up­per West Side, I came across Luke Ryan; a busker with soul, en­ter­tain­ing an in­vis­i­ble crowd, in the three-degree subway.

He sang Spring­steen tunes and swayed to the sound of his own voice. He ban­tered with the non-existent onlookers:

“Oh, there’s the Venti Star­bucks cup. It’s all down­hill from here. I’m gonna call it a day. Thanks so much for stop­ping by.”

I looked around and won­dered if he was aware that no one was there.

And then I saw his sign, hand­writ­ten, lean­ing against his worn gui­tar case. “I’m not here and nei­ther are you,” it said.

A nat­tily dressed man in an Ar­mani suit scur­ried by, in­tently fo­cused on the train track ahead.

Luke, whose beard is go­ing gray in two per­fectly ver­ti­cal lines straight down his chin, is an elf-like char­ac­ter with a mis­chie­vous twin­kle in his eye. Like a spark­plug, he is stout, square and full of charge. He looked at the man in the Ar­mani and shouted out, “Mad Dog!”

Ar­mani Man halted.

“You look great. You’re all cleaned up. You’re out of the joint. Good for you.”

Ar­mani Man ducked into the first open train door, with­out notic­ing that it was a Queens bound N. “We used to be cell mates,” Luke said to me. “I was the husband.”

That was worth a buck and I gladly dropped a dol­lar into Luke’s case.

Luke has played the sub­ways for over 30 years, for such spec­ta­tors as Ab­bie Hoff­man and Tom Waits. He played there back when the city danced to war and protest songs. He played there when that same city reeled from the shock of 9/11, then grieved and healed. He’s been chased, tick­eted and em­braced by the NYPD as busk­ing evolved from a ro­man­tic no­tion to a le­git­i­mate oc­cu­pa­tion to an il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity (which is where it stands to­day). From freez­ing to swel­ter­ing tem­per­a­tures, ha­rass­ment from the home­less to the NYPD, le­gal bat­tles, ar­rests, con­fine­ment, First Amend­ment Rights con­tro­ver­sies, in­car­cer­a­tion, tick­ets and fines, Luke con­tin­ues to play.

In fu­ture edi­tions of this col­umn, we’ll meet “The Saw Lady,” one Na­talia Paruz, who has played Madi­son Square Gar­den and Carnegie Hall. She still calls the New York Sub­way her mu­si­cal home. The ide­al­is­tic Theo Eastwind—baker turned busker—with his blond hair and sharp blue eyes, able to re­cite the First Amend­ment and all of its nu­ances in four lan­guages. We’ll meet the in­domitable Al­ice Ri­d­ley Tan, an 18-year vet­eran of the New York un­der­ground and mother to Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of the film Pre­cious.

We’ll meet these peo­ple and many more, hear their sto­ries, lis­ten to their songs and ex­plore the con­tro­versy that swirls around them in the New York un­der­ground. And no mat­ter what form of trans­porta­tion you use—a John Deere trac­tor, an Ital­ian Vespa, a magic car­pet or the city trains—may you be trans­ported to a dif­fer­ent place than you were when you started.

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