ConstantCommentary® Vol. X, No. 167, May 25, 2006

So Sue Me . . .

by Mike Jasper


Busk me to tears
(... my short life as an undercover street musician.)

It seemed like a great idea. While covering the story on the Austin Police Department's enforcement of new city ordinances prohibiting such things as sitting, sleeping and begging on public streets, I'd go undercover as a busker -- a catchy word for street musician.

Some buskers are well known in Austin, such as Gerry Van King aka The King of Sixth Street. Others become famous long after their busking days are over, such as Slaid Cleaves and Kacy Crowley.

And others are writer-musicians (that's what it says on my tax return) pretending to be homeless for the sake of a story.  Apparently.

My plan was simple. I'd put on a black trench coat, take a guitar downtown, and pose as a homeless-looking busker while breaking the city's ordinances. I'd then see first hand how the police handle the situation. Would they ask me to correct my behavior? Or would they ask me to stop playing completely? Even worse, would they write me a ticket? Or send me to jail?

It was a simple plan, but not necessarily a good one.

After covering Monday night's Music Commission meeting (where I also wore a black trench coat) I headed to Lovejoy's pub and enlisted the help of bartender Marshall Sugg, who agreed to take a picture of me sitting on the sidewalk outside -- just 25 feet from an ATM machine. Sitting on the sidewalk and playing within 25 feet of an ATM machine are both forbidden under the new laws.

I sat in a little doorway (blocking an entrance, also against the law) near the corner of Neches and Sixth Street for my photo op. Marshall is a visual artist, and his commitment to excellence extends to photo-journalism as well. Apparenlty.

"Let me try one more and see if I can get the ATM machine into the shot this time," Marshall says. "Good. Now another, with less black wall in the background. Great. Let's try another at this angle."

You get the picture. Eventually, so did he.

After Marshall finishes, I start strumming and singing "Gloria," loudly -- as loud as you can get playing a Baby Taylor. As I bang on the guitar, someone parks in front of me, gets out of the car, and asks if I'm a street musician.

The urge to say something sarcastic is strong, but a hungry street musician would never do that.


"Great, I love street musicians," he says, and hands me a dollar bill. Doesn't stop to hear one note I'm playing, just gives me a buck and splits.

Not a bad gig, I think, and I remember a busker telling me once that the people who give street musicians money never hang around around to listen, while the people who hang around to listen never give money. Odd.

Unfortunately, that was the last dollar bill or pedestrian I would see for 15 minutes. To be more conspicuous, I walked around the corner onto Sixth Street. As I do, a cop car drives by and I wave. He looks at me with that I'll-catch-you-later look and drives on. Perfect.

I sit down on Sixth Street and start playing again. No police in sight. Five minutes later I hear, "Hey, man, what are you doing? I thought you could get better gigs than this."

Great. It's Kevin Gant, a singer-songwriter who is making an album in my recording studio. He sings the vocals, I lay down the beatz, and now he's blowing my cover.

Then again, maybe I caught a break. After all, Kevin is black, and the APD makes the LAPD look like Freedom Fighters. Unfortunately, Kevin doesn't linger long, so I move on down the road to set up shop in front of Maggie Mae's,  the heart of busking central on the corner of Sixth and Trinity.  Now the police will find me for sure.

Just as I start playing, someone walks up with an Epiphone guitar strapped around his neck, leans down, gets right into my face and says "You better stand up young man, or the police shall send you to jail!"

He introduces himself as Jonny U.K. That would explain the British accent. "Let me play you a song," he says.

"Sure," I tell him. "Can I take your picture?"

He agrees, and as I snap his phot, he breaks into an original song dedicated to John Lennon. The word "love" is repeated several times, and he hovers over me as he sings while I sit illegally on the sidewalk looking up at him. The dude looks like Christopher Walken.

Soon, three redneck-looking guys walk up and carefully watch Jonny serenade me.  Great. They're probably thinking Brokeback Buskers, they probably don't like what they see, and when Jonny finishes singing, they're probably going to beat us to bloody hell (to use Jonny's vernacular).

But I was wrong. Way off.

Jonny finishes the song and ambles off into the night. The three redneck-looking guys approach me.

"Aren't you a musician too?" the thin one wearing a baseball cap asks.

"Sure," I say and break into a mellow folk song. After I finish, the thin guy in the baseball cap says, "Tell you what, I'll trade you songs. One-for-one."

"That'll work," I say and hand him my guitar. For a moment I think, what if they grab my guitar and run? That would be hilarious. I'd have to charge more for the article, though.

Anyway, the thin guy's playing me this song, and I take out my digital camera and snap a shot of him. Nobody seems surprised that a homeless guy has a digital camera -- or a Baby Taylor guitar, for that matter -- and I get to thinking, what's up with this guy anyway? He plays great and his voice is way better than average. But he's basically showing up a homeless guy. Why would he do that? And what's he going to do next, eat a hot dog in front of me?

After he finishes the song, I tell him he sounds real good and ask, "Where are you from?"

"Wichita Falls," he says. Ahhhh. So that's why he's showing up a homeless guy.

"Can I get your name?" I ask. He tells me it's Rudy. Then I ask him what they're doing in town.

"We're here for an exterminators' conference," he says.

Excellent! It's the real life Dale Dribble. Not even James Frey could make this up.

I decide to come clean and tell them I'm a reporter working undercover on a story about buskers. I also tell them I've pretty much given up on the idea, since it's nearly 9 p.m. and I'm ready to go home and watch Rollergirls on A&E.

"You should have set up around the corner," Rudy says. "Look through the window. A cop's been sitting there the whole time."

"Yeah, well, now you know why I need work as a writer," I say as I walk off.  "As a musician, I can't even get arrested in this town."

Could I get a rim shot, please?
* * *

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: This column aims to be funny. If you can read anything else into it, you're on your own.

© 2006 by Mike Jasper, All Rights Reserved. ConstantCommentary® is published whenever Mike Jasper feels like it. All material is the responsibility of the author.