Singing for your Supper: Busking in Berlin

Originally commission by Berlin Logs, 2015

There comes a stage in every man’s life when he’s faced with a difficult employment related dilemma. Clutching a heavy guitar case, I gazed over the alcohol section of one of the more frugal supermarkets in Berlin contemplating my own. “One or two bottles? Sternberg or the cheapest Spanishesque brand?” The Roma band who play at the same Ubahn station as I do tend to go for Sternys, but I’m not at their level just yet. I need to raise ten euro just to break zero, as I’m indebted to friends after the costly May Day festivities of the weekend before. Insistent I need at least a little Dutch courage, or perhaps Spanish company, I grab two 28c beers and set out toward Eisenacher to busk.

Unemployment in Berlin is common enough to come with its own set of myths and misinformation. Jobcentres are the last resort of the most wanting, desperate expatriate. Without good German, or without good help, you’re without hope facing the damning tone of the over-worked, begrudging government employees. Groups such as Basta in Wedding offer free help and insight for those who are in need, regardless of their background or situation.  They’ll come along to Jobcentres demanding their voices are heard, and your needs are met- just waiting for the inevitable, “maybe, they should just return to their home country to seek work”, before they release hell upon the unsuspecting, supposed “xenophobe” behind the glass screen.

Having successfully paid my rent for the following month, I felt the stress levels involved in attempting to file for benefit, while awaiting another job, were too high to truly consider the option seriously. Thankfully, I spent one summer before in Galway, Ireland, living off a busker’s budget, so I remembered the protocol- and, thankfully, a lot of the songs. Berliners differ from Irish crowds in as much as they don’t seem to care whether or not they know a song before they chuck a few coins into an eager, open case.  In those ten to twenty seconds they walk by they just want two things from a performer, if they are to be accosted by his music without their consent: not to be bombarded with insufferable wailing, and to be pleasantly surprised. I’m certain when I’ve been scraping the bottom of the song book- barrel, I’ve failed at times in both regards. However, for the most part, it’s an enriching experience.

Kids are always the first to pay attention and babies are oglers like no others. Parents seem to be taken aback by the sheer attention their children can give to something they, as adults, barely register. Tiny hands are given coins, big ones push them along toward the folk playing pauper trying not grin with delight at the sound of coins bouncing off the green felt interior. “Veilen dank” interrupts any melody, regardless of convenience or timing. I have no name on my case, there are no contact details- this is purely survival. This is selling out before ever even contemplating artistry. Granted I play my own songs on occasion, and only others I find enjoyment in performing, but that’s only because they’re the ones I know, not for any ill-gotten thought of credibility.

There’s a tattooed-faced man who plays an odd musical box instrument outside Brandenburg Gate. I used to hold a job there where I spent the majority of my day fishing, like so many others, for straggling tourists in need of entertainment or distraction. There, I witnessed the king of Berlin’s buskers at work. He never spoke, apart from the odd greeting to other fair weather workers as he set up his antique musical contraption.  When a tourist asks for a photo, he reaches for a spare top hat, more fetching than his own, to place upon them and continues on smiling his unrelenting grin. He tips his hat in gratitude only when he’s been tipped first. This act is never less than perfection, never altering, never anything other than professional. The rest of the tourist trade looked on with awe, as we complained about the heat of the weather or scarcity of the crowd. I think of him now toward the end of a quiet day busking. Weekdays are always bare. There’s still enough money left to get all my groceries, and as I walk toward my awaiting train- I nod toward the Roma band who’ve packed up for the night. Smiling, I think perhaps tomorrow I’ll go for Sternbergs.

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