“Excuse me, can I help you there ‘matey,’” junior Glen Pearson, a theatre performance major, shouted in a very non-threatening voice.
It was almost comical, drawing enough attention to the thief trying to run off with his tip jar. He was slightly annoyed, though no one walking past him could tell from his quick-witted remarks to passersby.
“Smoking won’t send you to hell, it’ll just make you smell like you’ve been there,” he heckled a woman smoking a cigarette. He now stood almost directly over his blue clothed Christmas-popcorn-tin tip jar. There was hardly any money in it anyway, he thought.
Pearson’s most recent summer job was not making it rain, but it was paying better than sitting at home on his couch.
It was really his only option for work. He put in long hours, often from 10:00 a.m. until 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. the next day. A typical day brought in between $10 and $20. In the long run, however, the entire summer experience as a busker—or a street performer—in Chicago was, he says, invaluable.
He left his suburban home in Naperville every morning wearing a white button-up shirt, blue jeans, black dress shoes and mirrored aviator sunglasses. When he got to his usual corner at the art institute, he would put on a bright red tie, a blue top hat with a red feather and swap the dress shoes for a pair of red converse all-stars. He was completely red, white and blue.
And so he began his act as Roger, the slightly obnoxious East Londoner who had a quick wit and many talents. He would juggle, hit on women with their boyfriends or husbands, tap dance, perform with puppets, tell stories and jokes, heckle, do a Michael Jackson tribute dance and give out photographs with kids who found him amusing.
For the next 11 hours, Roger entertained in hopes of charming the change out of passersby. He rarely took breaks. He rarely ate anything except the granola bars and snack lunches he brought from home. He just could not afford to pay for food.
He had to pay $100 for an official ‘Street Performing License’. The city of Chicago forces its street performers to be licensed and strictly controls where they can and can not perform.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to Millennium Park, Grant Park, the Navy Pier and a lot of other places,” Pearson said.
Buskers of the past have ruined performing for anyone else, he explained. A percussion group that uses trash cans and various other metal apparatus to create their sound used to play, and still plays illegally, around Millennium Park and many of the other areas buskers are no longer allowed to perform in or around. Pearson described them as obnoxious and breaking the noise law, though, he admitted, they made a lot of money.
“They would set up on a corner until they saw the cops coming. Then they would scatter and meet up a couple blocks down and do the same thing,” Pearson said. “They just won’t get a license.”
Competition was fierce–so much so that other performers would often try to steal his spot, invade his territory and take from his tips. He did not put up with it. Once a mime came up right beside him and started performing. Pearson yelled at him to “shove off,” and quickly made him leave.
Other times people would blatantly try to steal his tip jar. They would try to kick it away from him in order to pick it up and run without being tackled, but Pearson was always quick to grab it and ask, “excuse me ‘matey’ would you like to see a jig?”
One woman had the audacity to just ask for money. She walked up and insisted that he give her four or five dollars for a hamburger. He said he did not have money to give her but informed her about the homeless shelter down the street. She responded quickly that she had just been kicked out because she was “not allowed to take her medicine in there.”
He mentioned the hospital was not too far from there. She said that the hospital took her kids. She pointed to his rather large blue clad tin that read ‘tips’ and asked for some money, again. He asked if she really wanted his only four dollars. She said yes or maybe five if he had it. Pearson, rather exasperated at this point, explained that he could not do it, and she walked away.
Pearson noted the difference between busking and those slumped over against a building and the sidewalk with a cup out asking for money.
“I’m providing a service,” he said. “I’m doing something for money, providing an entertainment, not just begging for free change on the street.”
Buskercentral.com says that street performers are “highly skilled in their craft by several years.” Some are highly skilled street performers who have become a staple in a city’s day-to-day life and can make a lot of money. Current.com reports that the Naked Cowboy in New York makes about $1,000 a day. But, obviously, this is only the case for the most well-known buskers in the nation. It is hard to make $50 a day for most street performers.
A fact that author Mike Yankowski and travelling partner, Sam, find out quickly in his book “Under The Overpass.” He writes about his experiences travelling around to six different major U.S. cities, trying to earn money playing guitar and living on the streets.
While many street performers are not homeless, like Pearson or the Naked Cowboy, the distinction can sometimes be hard to make. Many homeless people are street performers, or they sell BIG Issue magazines to the public like in London, England.
There are certainly those who busk because it is what they love doing. They love to travel, perform and entertain in a most basic sense. There are certainly those who do it for the money, such as the Naked Cowboy. But there are others who only do it because they have to earn enough money to buy food, drugs or alcohol, and they have no other option except begging.
It is the latter group, said Mary Ruthi, Ph.D.,sociology professor at Huntington University, which Karl Marx would say have been pushed under by capitalism. They are not doing what they love. They are trying to earn a couple dollars to eat or to begin thinking about getting off the streets.
From a Christian’s perspective, Ruthi admitted how hard it was to know who to help and how to help them. Even she does not often give to people asking on the streets. She usually groups the homeless and the street performer in different categories, though financially this is not always the case.
“I never think to stop and give a street performer money unless I stop and watch his show,” she said.
Ruthi wonders if Christians should spend more time actually trying to fix the problems that force people into poverty instead of worrying about whether to give someone a couple cents.
“Giving money to someone is the easy way out compared to fixing the problems that force people into poverty,” she said. “The problems that cause poverty and destitution need to be examined just as closely as our consciences when it comes to helping anyone on the street.”
Ruthi acknowledged that some, or even most, street performers are doing what they love. And that has to make you ask if what they are offering is worth anything to you, if what anyone is offering to you is worth anything.