Beg, Borrow or Busk

By Eric Müller

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On entering school in Eugene, Oregon, Edmund realized how radically different our
family was compared to most American families, and he got increasingly embarrassed
about all our traditions, customs and my nonconformist quirks, like playing music in
public spaces. For a while I didn’t go anywhere without my pennywhistle (and sundry
noisemakers) tucked inside my jacket pocket, which I would whisk out at any time when
I felt the urge, which happened whenever I walked under a bridge, through a tunnel or
any place that had inviting acoustics – or just because. With an immediate “Aw,
Daaaad,” he’d distance himself, and squirm. I always dreamed of busking with the entire
family. That never happened, but I did, somehow, get all three of my sons to tag along
with me, at least once. Edmund was only four and a half when he joined me.

After three demanding years of persistent phone calls, unrelenting paperwork and
draining trips to the American consulate in Bonn and Frankfurt, we finally received our
coveted green cards. We’d elevated to the status of Resident Aliens and each one of us
was now a U.S. Person. At last we could emigrate, except for the fact that we had
absolutely no money to finance our move to the US. It was clear: we had to beg, borrow
or busk. While my wife Tina made a list of all the people we’d approach for money, I
made a list of tunes ranging from blues, folk, Broadway, to rock and roll. “It’s a matter
of putting out the energy,” I argued. Tina just said “Yeah, yeah, honey, you go and sing
your songs,” affecting a broad American accent.

I planned to hit Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Bonn and Bochum. Armed with
ukulele, mandolin, pennywhistle, and a tambourine for Edmund, we took the S-Bahn to
Dortmund one Saturday morning – our first gig. It was still early and we stationed
ourselves at the beginning of the Fussgängerzone in the city’s center. I unpacked my
instruments, dropped a few coins into the open mandolin case to give the impression that
others had found our music worthy, and started playing some jigs and reels on the tinwhistle. Edmund sat on the curb, holding the tambourine in his hand. It took ten minutes before an elderly woman with blue hair and a quad cane dropped a coin. Edmund banged on the tambourine in delight, and I winked at him. After that he banged the tambourine every time someone tossed a coin. But that was not very often. I tried to encourage Edmund to play along, but he refused, and after a while he didn’t even beat the tambourine when someone chucked us a few Pfennige.

An hour later Edmund got hungry and I sent him to buy some buns at the bakery
on the other side of the pedestrian zone. He came back with a bag full of buns, cookies,
and all the money. “They just gave it to me,” he said smiling at his bounty. We took a
little break and enjoyed the fresh Brötchen, and counted the money we’d earned so far –
about as much as we’d spent on the train fare. Disappointed, I stood up, grabbed my
ukulele, and sang Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” with a vengeance. A few songs later
my fervor was spent and we packed up and left.

To shorten the 45 minutes wait for our train, I decided to give it another go and
play a few more tunes in the underground thoroughfare of the station. I didn’t care about
money anymore and just played for fun. Most people passed us by, except for two girls
in full punk regalia, leaning casually against a graffiti covered concrete pillar. They wore
chains, black leather jackets and army boots; their heavily painted faces were pierced
with safety pins, studs, and rings; and both had multi colored spiked hair. They looked
severe, but I saw one of them tap her feet, so I played with abandon. I was almost
disappointed when they walked away. Five minutes later they returned and poured two
full pouches of coins into the open mandolin case, leaving a mountain of money.
Edmund banged hard on his tambourine, which made them smile, and I bowed my head
in thanks. “Tolle Musiek,” one of them said as they marched off, their studded army
boots echoing.

Our meeting with the punks had made it all worth it, but I stopped trying to raise
money through busking. With the generous help of friends we made it to America.

Four years later we returned to Europe for a vacation and to visit our respective
families and friends, which took us to London, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. In
Basel, for old time’s sake, I decided to go busking again. Edmund adamantly refused to
come along, but Matthew, who was six by now, was game. In my bachelor days I’d often
played somewhere along the Freie Strasse, also a pedestrian zone. Matthew insisted on
playing the pennywhistle while I played the mandolin. Of course, he couldn’t play any of
the tunes, but his fingers flitted across the holes at a frenetic pace, and he swayed
convincingly, all the time frowning. When I changed to the ukulele he hummed into a
kazoo, buzzing along randomly. Meanwhile, Edmund dragged Tina to the toy store.
Though we didn’t make much, it was enough for all four of us to enjoy a little something
at a café. Matthew felt important, having earned his first income.

A further four years later, during my sabbatical, we again returned to Basel, where
we lived for almost six months. Julian, not yet three, already showed an unusual musical
aptitude. We’d bought him a small bodhrán in Ireland, which he played like a banshee,
achieving great rhythmic diversity. He never knew what rhythm he was playing, but we
created great energy when I joined in with my pennywhistle. The same was true when he
picked up the ukulele, which fitted his size perfectly. After I taught him three basic
chords he could strum away like a speed metal guitarist, his blond shock of curly hair
bobbing up and down. When I picked up the mandolin and improvised with him, the
music sounded in tune, rhythmically solid, and quite complex. I couldn’t resist hitting
the streets with Julian – the little prodigy would be a sensation. Barely three he had no
idea what it meant to go busking, but like his brothers before him, he came along.

As expected, a crowd of people gathered around us as soon as we started playing,
mesmerized by Julian as he shredded the ukulele. But as soon as he looked up and saw
all those people he stopped. Once they’d dispersed he bent over his four strings and
rocked out, which immediately attracted another crowd. Again he stopped, but all the
people clapped and whooped. Julian hid his head between his legs. No amount of
coaxing could get him to play for an audience. But once they were gone he had no
qualms about starting up again and tearing into the ukulele or the bodhrán. Julian hadn’t
quite grasped the concept of performing, so I suggested we go for ice-cream instead.
While we packed up, a well dressed Indian approached me, pressed a five frank coin in
my hand and said, “I know what it’s like to be poor. When I lived in Sri Lanka my father
also used to take me begging in the streets when I was a boy. I know what it’s like.”

And that marked the end of my busking days.

Eric Müller

Author’s Note:

The story is about how I took my three sons busking (separately). It compares and contrasts the outings that I undertook with each one of my sons. It will be included in a collection of stories called Drops on the Water, written by my son Matthew and I, respectively (a collection of very short non fiction stories that span three continents, four generations and a host of interesting people from all walks of life). “Beg, Borrow or Busk” will be the final story in the collection.