I Do Not Understand Reality, 27 September 2012; Or, The Dueling Buskers at Castro & 18th Street


Good Evening:

“San Francisco has five seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Hallowe’en and Autumn.” So I thought to myself at the 18th & Castro bus stop for the 24-Divisadero as a young man in a Catwoman costume (complete with falsies) walked past me. It’s that time of year in the city Herb Caen called Baghdad by the Bay. No doubt the gentleman had just returned from our annual Folsom Street Fair, our annual September celebration of decadence, debauchery, dominatrices and other forms of good clean wholesome fun for the entire family–the Addams Family. That part of reality I do understand.

Shy Busker on Haight Street with Digeridoos

I had spent that Sunday on Peralta Avenue–seen one metal-studded leather corset, seem ’em all–so I had chosen to miss the spanking, sadomasochism, sexual antics and other forms of good clean wholesome et cetera.

Now one thing music fans, activists, and pet lovers visiting San Francisco will enjoy knowing is that some of our finest buskers perform at the intersection of 18th and Castro. This is one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the entire city, and charities, political activists, our local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and musicians will compete for space at the corner where a bank stands. A wide expanse of sidewalk wraps around the bank, and I have seen AIDS activists collecting donations, buskers playing acoustic guitar and singing, and the SPCA playing matchmaker for humans and kittens–all at the same time.

Packing up After the Show

On this particular early Sunday evening, a young woman of about 25-30 wearing what I will call attempted “neo-Bohemian/60’s hippie” clothing performed acoustic guitar and sang for passersby with the aid of a portable amplifier that was less than 18 inches tall. This woman combined a major fail in fashion with major successes in songwriting, singing and guitar, sounding like someone who had started with Tori Amos and Sara McLachlan but then found her own way. She earned a steady stream of dollars from the spectators, including a George Washington from your faithful blogger. I understand this part of reality.

Then the competition showed up. This part of reality I did not understand.

This was an African-American gentleman, slightly older, much bigger, wearing a black suit, white shirt, no necktie, with an electric guitar and a two-foot tall amplifier. He began to set up his equipment.

She said, “Hey, what are you doing?” even as she kept strumming.

He said, “This is my spot.”

She said, “Excuse me, this is not your spot, this is my spot.”

He said, “No, you are in my spot, you took my spot away from me.”

She said, “I got here first.”

He said, “I have been playing here for eight years!”

She said, “I have been playing here for ten years!”

He said, “I have been playing here for twelve!”

He plugged his guitar into the amplifier, turned everything on, and began to play without tuning his instrument–louder than the acoustic guitarist with the tiny amplifier.

She turned up her amplifier until it was louder than his big one.

He turned up his amplifier until it was louder than her little one.

However, she had one of those amplifiers that can “go to eleven,” and she went there.*

He stood there, dumbfounded, alternating between glaring at her and glaring at his larger but impotent amp.

During this dispute, a crowd gathered around the dueling musicians and watched. “Why don’t they just take turns performing?” “Why don’t they just perform together?” “They both sound so awful playing so loud.” “Why doesn’t the City do something about this?” “Like what?” “You know, regulate, set up a schedule or something.”

Here’s something I noticed: during this entire dispute, neither musician earned even a penny. I thought of that other duel I had witnessed at 16th and Mission.

My bus arrived and spirited me away from the cacophany.

Vonn Scott Bair

* Every music-themed blog post needs a good Spinal Tap reference.


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