performers' library
A Glass Harper Busks Across the USA
Peter Bennett

Ten years ago when my then soon-to-be-former wife kicked me out of the house we had shared for twenty-five years I muddled around trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had already had six careers (that's a whole 'nother story -- one that I tell on the street if it seems appropriate since it is somewhat scatological) and didn't want to return to any of them!

A few years before that I had built a glass harmonica and, literally, learned how to play it in front of audiences at the Ithaca, NY, farmer's market on Saturdays during the summer and fall. My glass harp, by the way, is a twenty-seven goblet water-tuned chromatic instrument spanning two octaves and a major second. It is played by rubbing wet fingers around the rims of the glasses.

I soon discovered that the oddity of the instrument and its dulcet tones (Ben Franklin, an enthusiastic glass musician, compared its tones to the sound of an angel choir) drew large crowds very quickly. Soon thereafter I discovered that most of those people don't really want to listen to the music, they want to be entertained! Undaunted by the meager hats I as getting early on (in all fairness I must admit it took me five or six years to learn how to entertain people!) I hit the road with my Australian Shepherd, Sadie, and headed for Key West.

On the way I stopped in Ashville, NC. Don't.

The police made me purchase a $25.00 street performer's license. It took me a day to negotiate the bureaucracy and two days to earn the fee back! On the other hand the folks at the French Broad food coop allowed me to play at their store, and one of the customers put me up for several nights while I rebuilt my traveling funds. I promised myself I'd never buy a license again, a promise I break once a year when I pay the Cambridge (MA) Arts Council $40.00 to play on Harvard Square for a weekend. Irksome, but worthwhile.

Several stops in Florida proved fruitless and when I got to Key West I discovered that the established performers on the old Mallory Dock had things so well tied up that breaking in was difficult. They allowed me to enter the nightly "lottery" last and found out-of-the way venues for me. At least Sadie and I could eat regularly. One of the Mallory Dock performers suggested I should try New Orleans.

Never been there. Left the next day. Long trip -- almost as far from Key West as it is from my former home in Central New York. I've lived there ever since!

Although, as we all know, venues are in a continual state of flux, what I've called "the hassle cycle," I soon found several pitches that suited my act. Jackson Square in front of the St. Louis Cathedral is my favorite. It often happens that it gets too loud there for the subtle tones of my unamplified harp. At that point I'll head for Royal Street, which is blocked off as a pedestrian mall seven hours a day. If it gets too loud there (weekends for example) I'll head (believe it or not) to Bourbon Street! There I had to learn how to deal with drunks, but often I have found drunks are the most generous of tippers.

Another favorite pitch for my particular act is Woldenberg Park hard by the Mississippi River. There are times when tourists cram the pleasant walkways by the river and even locals seem more generous in the sylvan attitude of the park. As you might well imagine, come summer it is too hot and humid on the streets of the French Quarter to earn a living as a street performer. I'll stick around until after Jazz Fest in May at which point I'll usually head for Harvard Square. When it gets too cold and crummy on the streets of New England I'll head back to New Orleans, it's what I call a peripatetic life style!

My first West Coast tour a couple of years later took me to Venice Beach in Los Angeles. I did enjoy that, but subsequent trips there have shown it (for me at least) to be a degenerating pitch, largely because of gang activity. It was there that someone suggested I stop in Santa Cruz on my way to San Francisco.

"Santa where?" was my first question. "Don't worry about it, just do it," I was told. I got there on a Friday evening, found, with some difficulty, Pacific Avenue and set up my glasses.

Now you've got to understand a couple of things about Santa Cruz. It is a most propitious combination of sociological phenomena: a beach community that is also an academic community. Indeed, one of the brochures for the University of California unit there doesn't show any pictures of the campus -- just pictures of surfing! Secondly Santa Cruz is the only city I have yet found that has on its main street a full-sized bronze statue of a street performer, a saw player who had passed on some years before. I had expected to stay just a couple of days. I ended up spending a week there it was so much fun. I've been back there several times since and have always found welcoming audiences, pleasant weather, and generous tippers.

The Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco was, at least a few years ago, a distressing place for me with street performers jealously fighting over even crummy pitches. The good private pitches require "auditions." I'm not afraid of auditions, but they tend to happen in the spring and then spaces are assigned in hour-long segments. If you aren't a local you have no chance to compete. I did have fun up on Union Square (where I may first have seen street performance visiting there with my parents when I was a child), but again, that may be because I'm used to dealing with drunks.

On that same trip I was hassled by a female cop on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO. I think it was because one of the local buskers complained that I was causing a disturbance. In actuality I suspect I had accidentally set up on his favorite pitch. I haven't been back since.

This summer I paid the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry people a thousand dollars to transport me and my van from Bellingham, WN, to Haines, AK. I also paid them $1,000 in advance for the ticket back to the "lower 48," as they call it, just in case the trip didn't prove profitable.

The trip did not turn out to be profitable, but that was offset by the spectacular nature of the scenery and the opportunity to see the "last frontier." After playing for cruise-ship passengers a few evenings in Haines I drove the rough roads 700 miles north and west thru Canada to Anchorage where, several years ago, the local Assembly passed an ordinance making street performance in the city clearly legal. With one MAJOR exception, not noted in the newspaper article I had read. The law specifically states that you must carry at all times all of your props -- nothing other than your tip-collection box can be on the ground. Unfortunately my instrument weighs 150 pounds when it is all tuned and sitting on its stand. They shut me down before I even began!

The people who run the "Saturday Market" in a huge parking lot off Third Avenue, however, were very cooperative and assigned me a pitch that worked handsomely for my glass harp. One of the members of PERFORMERS.NET read that I was in Anchorage and e-mailed me that he had a wedding to attend here and asked if he should bring his rig with him. I told him "yes" and let the market people know. They gave him a one-day pitch to set up his slack rope act and, I believe, he had a great time!

Unfortunately the Saturday Market is just that. The other days of the week I took my home-made hurdy gurdy up to the corner of 4th Avenue and F Street by the Anchorage Visitor's Center. That barely paid enough to keep me going, but at least I didn't starve!

And, as I said, it did allow me the opportunity to explore some of this magnificent wilderness. I brought a kayak with me and got to run the Kissilof River on the Kenai Peninsula and have gotten caught in a knock-down thunder storm in the middle of Eklutna Lake north of Anchorage -- absolutely spectacular, but that's yet another story.

By the way, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer (the week of the Labor Day holiday) does bring in street performers "from the outside," much to the distress of local buskers. I had tried to work with them by mail and internet for the six months before my trip, but was unable to get a response. I had asked for a guarantee and accommodations or camping space, and they apparently wrote me off as a grasping n'er-do-well! It didn't appear to me that either of the two buskers I saw there were doing very well the day I attended.

The odyssey continues and next week I'm off again -- although it grieves me to leave this wondrously beautiful place. But ten years ago I told myself I was through punching time clocks and there is no way for me to earn a living here during the winter. So, after a couple of gigs in Seattle and New England I'm headed south, my race is almost run. I'm going on back to New Orleans to work at the Rising Sun.

Peter "The Glassman" Bennett

Peter Bennett has been street performing for 14 years, eight of which have been in New Orleans. Some nights he can be seen playing a homemade hurdy gurdy instead of his glasses.

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