A Busking Adventure in Altona, (Hamburg, Germany)

It’s 5:30 AM on Sunday, November 8th, 2015. I slept hardly a wink, listening to a very musical rainstorm come in and out, happily cuddling my Ingo. I know what I have to do to go to sleep; I went busking yesterday, and dragging my gear around town, plus playing accordion for a few hours always make my neck and back and hands sore. All I need to do for sleep is to take a little pain medicine and stretch out on the floor, doing gentle twists and yoga poses for an hour. But tonight the air feels different. My thoughts want me to be awake. The storm sounds quieted to a rare absolute stillness. Wilhelmsburg is an industrial place, I’m not used to real silence here! But I heard real silence, and on a hunch I looked out the window, to see stars, and a planet, and a sliver of a moon. That’s a rare sight for me these days in the cloud-covered north of Germany.

So much here is different from California! I really pay attention to the weather forecasts now, since my weekend busking job requires some awareness of the frequent showers. Saturday had dark grey skies which lightened up to silver for some moments; it was light enough in the morning that I knew I wasn’t off the hook for busking, the way I would be on those pitch-grey days when the light never changes and rain is never more than 5 minutes away. The rain wasn’t coming until 3 or 4pm, so there was incentive to hustle so as to get a solid day’s performance. I ate a small breakfast and dressed cute and packed out for the train ride to Altona; a fun bohemian/residential/cafe-and-mall-infested neighborhood, which has a long pedestrian-only row called Ottensee Hauptstrasse.

Last Sunday, I met an old man who handed me copies of the street performer rules for Altona, along with a story about how the neighborhood and the buskers actually took their debates to the town council once upon a time. He told me that Ottensee Hauptstrasse is a wonderful place, like the Garden of Eden, but there is a forbidden fruit that you can never eat there if you want to remain! The rules are, music is allowed from 11am-8pm Monday through Saturday, and not at all on Sunday. Also, no amplifiers. Damn and damn. I lost my voice from too much busking in the past, my microphone is definitely a favorite crutch that allows me to sing for much longer; and Sunday has always been a classic, great busking day for me. It feels a little bit like I’m going to church. But Altona is my favorite spot, and I’ll respect her rules.

So, out I went out Saturday morning to find what I could find. I’ll admit that more than one thing brought me out; the flower-bulb stall is out on Ottensee Hauptstrasse on Saturdays, and I had a craving for more daffodil bulbs and some crocusses. If you’ve ever wondered about the German obsession with flowers, I think it must be linked to these grey skies. I never used to be that enthusiastic about flowers in California, but now all I can think of, as the winter approaches, is how I might only see two or three hours of sunshine in March, and I want those early blooms to bring color into my life; it’s a weird, feverish desperation. At least in that way I’ve become fully German in the last 18 months.

Altona had plenty of action, a gypsy band in front of the Vodafone store, with three guitars, and a group of seven folks singing, crazily enough they were all in tune, the guitars and the voices. I felt extra generous for some reason, (the rare opportunity to hear a group of singers who are in tune, maybe?) and tipped them a 2 Euro coin, and gave the lady in front a thumbs-up sign. One spot down, two more left to check out… In the middle I found a saxophone/cajon duo, playing cheesy music extremely well. I tipped them too, yeah he was playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow but he did it with real musicality. A strange bubble-headed toy soldier cartoon character danced along to their music, pantomiming as though he was the performer. I’m guessing that the character is there to announce the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. It is November, after all… Time to check out the third spot… damn. A farmer’s market stall; and a stall labeled Oxfam. Just as I wondered “what is Oxfam”, a young, hearty man came up and asked me if I have a few minutes to talk to him about something important. He had this uniform-looking green windbreaker, and the practiced friendliness of someone who earns part of their pay on commission. Sometimes I talk to people who are selling things on the street; I’m always looking for a new angle for my professional pander and I like to contribute to the overall friendliness of the world. Here in Germany, I’m also looking for vocabulary tips. But here on a Saturday in Altona, I know that time is ticking by, I know that the last tiny available corner could fill up with a guitar player in 30 seconds. So I declined the opportunity to discover what Oxfam is… also I decided to stay at least 30 feet away from those guys. It’s depressing to watch your crowd thin out because some other well-intentioned soul is out to hustle their money for a good cause.

So I scanned back for the next best thing; something as far away from the sax duo as possible so that we can all play, out of line-of-sight from them. I felt a little guilty as I did this. I had to set up closer than I’d like because of Oxfam. I notice a punky-dressed panhandler, and ask him if he minds if I set up across from him. He says, not at all. Then I notice that the spot I’m eyeballing, alongside a tree planter, has a huddled figure in a sleeping bag next to it. Ok, I’m running out of options here so I lean down and let the sleeping bag know that I need to play a few tunes here to earn some money, and I hope it’s OK with them. The sleeping bag didn’t move.

My spot turned out to be pretty good, for an hour I played through a bunch of material, leaning heavily on my Irish repertoire. Germans love jigs and reels, they’ll tip for them too! I like to play a lot more rock n roll when I have an amp; but my voice won’t hold out for more than 10 minutes if I try to sing rockers without amplification. I sang a few songs, looked down and saw that one of my CD’s was missing… and a 20 Euro bill was in my tip bucket. Cool! That’s why I came to Germany. I seem to have decent luck with selling my CD’s here. Most Germans are so forthright, so used to street artists… I have a sign that tells them my prices, and they make change for themselves. Some kids came to listen (kids always listen to good music), a middle-aged man, in a nice suit, with two short stumps for arms came up to buy a CD. He had a grabber built in to one of his arm stumps. It looked like he was using his arm bones as long, stiff fingers. He easily handed me correct change and took the CD from me. I heard the gypsy folks come in behind me somewhere, playing music just down the row from me. Looks like my loudness caused the sax duo to leave, and the gypsies took over their spot. Sorry, dudes! I tried to face away, tried to leave space… sigh.

A firetruck drove up, interrupting my show. I sat there and watched, waiting to see if I would have to move… the firemen came and woke up the sleeping bag lump. It turned out to be a girl in her early twenties, with bleached hair in two little pigtails, and a pair of extremely dirty sweatpants that wouldn’t stay up. The paramedics told her to move along, we all got a view of her hot pink underpants before she covered up with her sleeping bag, and she went to find another spot. The firemen left, and I started in on a pretty little ballad, only to be interrupted by a very apologetic Turkish fellow. “Ich bin night gegen dir..” (I am not against you, but I have to ask my customers to repeat themselves three times for their orders! Please move farther away!)

Well, I have my own personal rule for busking, which applies even without old men who hand out printed sheets about the neighborhood rules. When someone asks me to stop, or move, I stop, or I move. The way I look at it, my job as a street performer isn’t just about making a buck; it’s about making the streets more beautiful so that people welcome street performers in general. A fight is never beautiful. And, even when you’re within the rules, you don’t want to get to know local cops because of a phoned-in noise complaint. I live here now. It’s important for me to maintain peace with Altona.

So, I asked the panhandler if I could play right next to him, further from the Turkish place, and he said fine, he likes my music. I asked him for his name, he said it’s Nudel. We chatted for a bit; I needed a little recuperation time before the last set, it’s demoralizing to have to stop and move for someone, it takes a moment to get your mojo back.

Another rule I have is, never play music when you don’t have the mojo flowing. It’s better to play an all-killer 15 minute set than to half-heartedly suck for hours. In our little conversation, Nudel was the second German ever, to tell me that he doesn’t really like America, (most Germans are really friendly and enthusiastic about American culture!) I didn’t argue with him, probably he’s right that a permanently unemployed punky panhandler wouldn’t have a great time there! (For one thing, you can’t drink beer openly on the street in America. I forget that rule so fast!) I also felt the need to point out that there are some great things about America, and that we have some of the best music in the world, and lots of natural beauty. But I agreed with his point, in one way. I see a lot more homeless people when I’m busking in San Francisco; and a lot of them are mentally ill. This makes the streets a little scary! Here in Germany, it’s not perfect but it’s organized. The only reason it’s got a real homeless population now is due to refugee traffic, from the wars my country escalates. Oy. Sorry Germans…

Well, it’s not great busker business to set up right next to a panhandler. We’re kind of in competition. So I just played a few punk songs in solidarity, and quietly amused myself by keeping the Oxfam team in the corner of my eye, made a few more tips, and closed up for the day. That rain was threatening to come for real, anyway. I went into the Turkish Doner place for a cup of coffee and a cookie, the counter-man recognized me and gave them to me for free. They never give me free stuff in there! Cool. Maybe my generous performer-tipping got me some free coffee karma. Or maybe he appreciated that he didn’t have to raise his voice with me to get me to move. I always frequent this Doner place because it’s near the little plaza I love, also they have a toilet, and they serve fresh coffee, food, and good beer. I used the men’s toilet on the way out, because the women’s was occupied. When I got out, I saw the nice counter man there, waiting. Oops! Sorry to delay you, counter-man. I guess no good deed goes unpunished!

On the way home I got a great deal on flower bulbs… and only got mildly drizzled on. Ingo cooked dinner, and we cuddled and watched an old Asterix movie. (I still love Asterix even though there are some fairly racist caricatures in the cartoon. Just notice them and move on…) I’m going to try to get a little sleep now. Sunday’s busk is coming up. It looks like we might get a little sunshine, and the Reeperbahn is calling!CAM01019 CAM01024

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