Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more no more no more…
The muffled voice of the busker filtered through my memory-foam headphones. Like filtered tap water, it was free of additives, coming through as a mechanical recitation of fake enthusiasm. Unlike filtered tap water, the experience was not improved by this process. If anything, the incongruity between the subdued voice and the enthusiastic hip swinging of the busker left me feeling a bit guilty, as though I just refused to buy the program notes to a classical concert, thereby refusing to fully appreciate what the performer had to offer.
Notice I didn’t use the term beggar. Beggar implies that the person has nothing to offer you. Most people asking for money on the street nowadays do have something to offer.
Indeed, sometimes these people can tell you more about a city than any guidebook. In the Netherlands street ‘beggars’ come up to you directly and ask for money. This seems unlikely in any other country. In Berlin, some just sit in on the street-side with a cardboard sign proclaiming ‘MONEY FOR BEER AND WEED’. In both cases, they’re offering something that is in scarcity— honesty.
This busker was no different. Despite his knee length dreadlocks flailing around his head like a shipman’s whip, the expression on his face was unmistakably defiant. Here was a man who was proud of what he was doing— namely, playing the first few bars of the trumpet introduction, singing the refrain from Hit the Road Jack, and rocking his hips like he was trying to draw an invisible perfect circle. By not calling him a beggar, one acknowledges that his misfortune was not because of him per se, but because we didn’t have the capacity to give what he had to offer due appreciation.
I was faced with two problems at that moment. First was whether to pay him at all. A friend of mine— she’s the kind of person who would raise questions about scientific grounding when you mentioned the 5 second rule – once told me that ‘beggars’ sometimes operated in gangs, and if they see you’re willing to give money, they would target you for a robbery. But before I could worry about that, I had to decide whether or not to take off my headphones. If I did, the reality of his performance would hit me and I’d probably feel guilty enough to pay him, and I only had a 50 euro bill on me.
The way I saw it, I had three options, none of them appealing.
Option 1: Hey, love your work—do you have change for a 50? Say… 48?
Option 2: Hey, love your work—sorry man I don’t have change
Option 3: Leave the headphones on and ignore him when he comes to me with his plastic cup
Some would say that I could take the headphones off, enjoy the music, and wave him away when he comes over. These people obviously don’t know me.
As a self-professed audiophile (albeit a poor one), I belong to a generation who has their own backing track to reality. Of course, I don’t listen to music when I’m with other people. But when I’m alone, which I usually am, you can be sure that there will be something playing in my ears.
Sometimes this can be for dramatic effect. The break-up I witness feels all the more intense with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A playing— the scalding words coming out of their mouths become inaudible, the scene fades into a polaroid black and white, the grainy surging strings joins the tentative piano introduction, and I sit back for the show.
Other times it makes a serious situation comical. A man who was obviously high as a kite provokes two policemen and gets shoved to the floor. His silent screams were dubbed over by an all time classic— where were you when we were getting high…
With the click of a button, I can create my own backing track, or block out whatever I don’t want to hear. It’s a habit of mine to put on headphones even when nothing is playing. If people are saying bad things about me I won’t have to hear them; if I’m bored and want to people-watch, I can put words in their mouths.
Unfortunately, I’ve gotten so used to my own version of reality that taking my headphones off is like when I go back to Hong Kong after spending a long time abroad and have spicy street food for the first time. I can no longer handle the unadulterated version, and end up becoming a sweaty blob.
The train was nearing a stop, and the busker stopped playing to do his rounds with the passengers. Some people looked away, others smiled and gave him some change. As he approached me, my iPod decided to cue Hans Zimmer’s Dream is Collapsing from Inception. Each step he took was accentuated by a tuba blast.
He glanced at me, and in a panic I smiled and took my headphones off.
There was a frozen moment— the kind of silence you get when two people start talking at the same time and stop, both hesitant to be the one to start again.
There was a large hiss from the train stopping, and the busker was singing again, his voice fading away as he moved down the carriage.
Now baby, listen baby, don’t ya treat me this a-way
Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day
Still feeling slightly guilty, I put my headphones back on. The memory foam creates a perfect seal; one moment the roar of the train starting, the next the dull throbs of muffled sounds. The setting sun paints everything a rosé pink, and everyone sways to the rhythm of the train. I put on Joseph Arthur’s In the Sun, and the strumming guitar hits my earbuds like a heroin shot.
May God’s love be with you… always…
All traces of guilt vanish, and I sit back for the show.