When I began this blog in 2011 I was receiving a box of produce every week from Riverdog Farm and sometimes supplementing my produce box with additional items from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. I was painting watercolors of food subjects twice a week to illustrate what I was cooking, eating and buying. In October 2012 I discontinued my produce subscription because I could no longer spare the twenty dollars a week it took to bring all of that fresh, organically-grown produce into the house. Mid-October I took up a career of busking at the local BART station, playing and singing for tips and the occasional CD sale. By November I had added shifts at the Farmers’ Market on Center Street.
For three and a half months I have been singing and playing guitar in public places, earning whatever passers-by choose to pay me. I do not recommend this as a way of making your living — if I did not live at my mother’s house I would certainly be on the street for more than a few hours a day. I play for two or two and a half hours a shift, seldom repeating a song, and only taking breaks to drink water, answer questions or sell CDs. I arrive promptly for my shifts, thank everyone who throws so much as a penny in my case, sing my songs in a different order everyday so that no one gets bored with hearing the same one as he or she hurries to catch their train or buy their potatoes.
I am not the greatest guitar-player in the world, but I am competent: I can accompany the types of songs I sing. I have found that daily performing takes me back to songs I learned early in my life when I spent hours listening to Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell records. I play the fingerpicked standards that all guitar students learned to play: “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” which I first heard the year I lived in Ireland, and “Railroad Bill.” I play Bob Coltman’s “Before They Close the Minstrel Show” which I first heard when I was a graduate student in folklore in North Carolina. I play James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which I learned in high school from some other women who played the guitar. While I have a deep repertoire of traditional folk songs I find that many songs I love are too slow for public playing: people will tolerate Joni’s “That Song About the Midway” and Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” occasionally, but they seem to like a steady diet of acoustic blues and Bob Dylan songs.
Most musicians will tell you, to quote my friend Carol Denney, “Practicing doesn’t usually make you worse” (It can if you practice your mistakes so many times that you learn them by heart: then you have to unlearn them). It is unlikely that I have gotten worse from the daily practice of my craft in public — I now know I can play and sing for two and a half hours standing up by myself. I might get tired. My guitar might go out of tune and require retuning, but I now have the stamina to play for two and a half hours without stopping.
Back in a former life, I used to wish I was “a real musician.” I defined “a real musician” as one who plays everyday. I am perilously close to achieving that status now that I play six days a week in public — if I practice at home on the seventh day I have become “real” for that week.
Does it make me happy? Yes and no. I am itching for new repertory and must make the time to develop it when I am at home. I am hungry for new guitar skills (Fortunately, I am paired up with a man who can teach me licks and tricks in our spare time). I have fallen in love with the guitar style of Dave Van Ronk, plus some old guys from the 1920s whose records he learned from. At the same time, it is dispiriting to play for two hours and receive two dollars and a quarter on a day when I debuted two new songs and I gave it my all. January has not been kind to me as a busker.
The lack of fresh food means that I have few recipes to write about: every now and then I cobble together a delicious green fish curry or a curried apple, carrot and romanesco soup, but I eat a lot of pinto beans and spoon bread, scrambled eggs, peanut butter and jelly. My Farmers’ Market purchases last week were limited to two bunches of carrots, one of which I ate, Sawsan-style, grated into my morning oatmeal. The other bunch serves as crunchy food at lunch. I cook breakfast for Johnny when he’s here, make soups and bake bread, but I miss the variety of greens and citrus and roots that I complained of seeing too much of another January: now I see it as a wonderful and challenging abundance from which to work. I do sometimes look in on the wonderful blogs of others, but I don’t have the amount of free time I used to have.
I have acquired a writing student, who will start working with me in February for four weeks. I am excited about teaching Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice again.
I appreciate anyone who stops by to keep up with my story here, any subscribers or casual readers who have wondered at my long absence. It took me most of January to locate my camera battery recharger, without which I had no hope of illustrating anything. I leave you with some drawings of my old Harmony guitar, my constant companion in this latest phase of my life.