Sometimes all you can do is choose the least uncomfortable situation, then make the best of it. That thought literally blasted me in the face while I asked my husband, as we set up to play Christmas music on a Tacoma street corner, “Should we be on the west side with sun but more wind, or the north side with cold shade and less wind?” We weren’t “busking”, uninvited and playing only for tips. We’re professional musicians and had been legitimately hired by a local business district, along with several other small groups, to provide seasonal ambiance for shoppers. Playing outdoors is always risky and that day the wind was C-O-L-D. It isn’t easy to play banjo or upright bass with stiff fingers.
As far as I could tell, all the musicians put out containers for tips. We’d been encouraged to do so by the organizer, even though we were being paid. It’s a common practice and usually well supported at places like farmers' markets. But it left us with a lesson in human nature and a few questions, like “Are we seeing some kind of Recession Mentality?” Despite the fact that we played our best, the old tip basket had more open space in it than a mortgage broker’s appointment calendar. Every once in awhile some kind person would drop something in, but not like you would expect.
I know people liked our music. Every time cars stopped for a red light at our corner, windows rolled down and smiles and waves appeared. Some drivers even got honked at when they paid more attention to us than the fact that the light had turned green. But they were safe in their cars and not expected to tip us. In the cold reality of life on the sidewalk we were a little too close for comfort to some people, close enough to maybe require eye contact or greetings. Many, even those who appeared well-off, hurried by. One couple came out of a nice restaurant a few doors down, started in our direction, then stopped and went the other way.
“Maybe we dressed too nicely,” I joked with my husband. “Like we don’t need tips.” He looked good in his layers topped by a corduroy sports coat and wool cap. I wore black slacks and a red wool blazer, a lot warmer looking than it really was. We thought we’d dressed appropriately for the job we’d been hired to do. But I don’t think it would have made any difference. The kind of people who are always “givers” gave, and we did meet some of them, like the nice lady who wanted to treat us to hot coffee. But this year, (and I’m not imagining it) there were more people who just didn’t want to part with a dollar, or even small change. You could see it in their faces and body language. Our presence made them as uncomfortable as the cold made us, even though we didn’t smell bad, look threatening or hassle them. What were they afraid of? That there isn’t enough to go around so they’d better not turn loose of what was theirs?
I can’t say if my eyes started watering from the cold wind or the realization that I at least had a warm house to go home to, and people living on the street do not. I shuddered thinking of spending a night outside in the winter. Then I met two people who might have faced that very thing. A couple got off the bus and came over to listen to us, through several tunes. They smiled and chatted, and offered nice compliments. They looked very, very poor. The man felt around in his pockets. He found two one-dollar bills and I watched him study them, briefly hesitating. Then he looked up at me and smiled and dropped them both in our basket.
“Thanks for the nice music” he said. He gave up money I was pretty sure they badly needed. I wanted to thank him and yet not take it, but seeing in his eyes the dignity with which he’d given the gift, I knew refusing him would be an insult. He was comfortable with his choice. We thanked them both sincerely and watched them go on their way to who-knows-where. I just hoped it was some place warm.
When we finished we spoke with other musicians who’d done about as well or even less so. It wasn’t that any of us were desperate for those tips. But the lack of holiday cheer did surprise us. Is everyone buying into the media hype that the world is coming to an end? We weren’t panhandlers. For less than the cost of a latte’ they could have shown a little appreciation for those struggling to play musical instruments in the cold for their enjoyment, or been a good example to their children, or taken part in a small act of kindness that might have made them feel a bit more like part of humanity. We need not be afraid to share.
Monetary wealth can be shown on a bank statement, but abundance is a state of mind. Times are tough, true. But even if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation you can still be positive and make the best of it, and even share. In this season, this year, when food bank shelves are bare and some families can’t afford gifts, dwell on goodness, generosity, and gratitude for what you do have, and you’ll magically find out that a kind heart makes you feel as comfortable and cozy as the imagined bliss of Eilza in the musical “My Fair Lady", who just wanted a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air. If we could feel safe, comfortable and happy with only what we really need, wouldn't it be lovely?