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Danny Wallace: The etiquette of paying a busker

"I don’t know how to walk normally any more."

Danny Wallace: The etiquette of paying a busker
05 October 2017

I think you walk differently when you’re about to give money to a busker. You don’t walk normally. Not at all.

I should say: I don’t mean you in particular. It is very arrogant that you should think I would write an entire column about the way you walk up to a busker.

But there’s this really terrific busker hammering away at an Ed Sheeran song by a fountain and I have to tell you, I am impressed.

Ordinarily, if I know I risk trespassing on an area in which buskers roam freely, I am cautious. I keep my eyes peeled and my ears open. You don’t want to say or do the wrong thing and be confronted by a pack of them. Buskers are wily, which is why they are forced to operate in the wild. Often if I turn a corner and see a gang of street buskers my hands will instinctively check my pockets for loose change so that I may pay my way past. One simply cannot risk being cursed by a street busker.

But I don’t think this guy would curse me. I think this guy, standing here with his guitar in front of a small crowd, means me almost no harm. I can make out no concealed weaponry – mallets, hidden wrist blades, etc – nor any books of spells. He simply has his song. (Ed Sheeran, ‘Shape Of You’.)

Usually, you must never catch the eye of a busker while they are busking, because then not only will they forget which Ed Sheeran song they’re singing, but they’ll look into your soul, like a fawn or woodland sprite, and know you have heard them busking. And just being within earshot of a busker places upon you, in busker lore, the burden of crossing their palms with silver, or – delete as applicable – chucking a quid in their hat.

It is actually a good business model. People have no choice as to whether they are consumers are not. You are standing on a street corner essentially spraying your product at people. Even if you’re walking past at great speed and have only heard one-20th of their siren’s call, bad luck, he sprayed you. Now pay. I’m sure they probably call it the old spray’n’pay. It’s certainly how I ended up buying half a litre of Kouros in a John Lewis in the mid-Nineties.

But this is a young man I would not mind catching the eye of.

And by that, I mean I would be happy to pay this young man money to perform for me.

“I’m going to give him a couple of quid,” I tell my wife, who I have kept out of this story so far because she was just standing there, staring at her phone, which is absolutely typical.

“Who?” she said, deigning to glance up from her “smart phone” and her “apps” and “web surfers”.

“Johnny Guitar Face,” I say, pointing at the busker.

“Sure,” says my wife, as if I, a connoisseur, need her permission to support the arts.

But I hesitate. Paying a busker means doing something we’re not comfortable with. It means breaking away from the crowd. It will also mean exposing my tastes. It will be saying, “Up until now I have not deemed this worth paying for, but it was this second chorus of ‘Shape Of You’ that changed my mind entirely.”

So I begin to walk towards him. And immediately I notice how differently I am walking. I am walking in a very butch manner. I am swinging my shoulders to show how confident I am, and I’m sort of doing it in time to the music, and

I am making a serious face. Why?!

I get to the busker, chuck two quid in his hat, and immediately swing around without looking at him and walk back, all butch.

I can’t stop. I don’t know how to walk normally any more.

Why am I being so butch?

“I went all butch,” I tell my wife, relieved to be back in the safety of the crowd. I have paid the busker tax. I can relax now. I shall not be curs’d this day. I glance from side to side to make sure no one is making fun of the very butch man.

I think I know why we walk a bit differently when we step out of the audience and approach the artiste. It is because suddenly we are sharing the spotlight with them. Well, not the spotlight. The streetlight. But the busker approach is the closest we come to doing our own little fashion show. The pavement is suddenly our urban catwalk. We stride up, strike a pose, chuck a quid, turn, and stride back.

And we inexplicably feel we must do it looking nonchalant, confident, fabulous.

The busker starts his next song.

“Oh,” I say. “It’s another Ed Sheeran one.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

I was giving the man money because he was good. Not because Ed Sheeran is.

I toy with the idea of taking one of the pounds back in protest. I’ve had a taste of the catwalk and I liked it. My walk would be magnificent. Maybe when I stopped at his hat, I’d do a coquettish half-turn. Give the crowd a little something. I could hold a lollipop and look surprised.

At the very least, we’ve discovered I am butch enough to get away with it.

(Image: Seb Barsoumian)