Strumming on the Street, Part IV: Quick, It's the Cops!

Apr 08, 2008

“…Then, suddenly, he began to quiz me briefly but explicitly, officially establishing my status as a common criminal…” 


Well, I’d set up on this particular afternoon, replacing a hardy, fresh-faced high school boy who’d been working miracles with the bagpipes. He was kilted out and richly gifted; I could have listened for hours, but he told me that he might die if he actually tried to play the pipes non-stop for hours. He wished me luck and then went on his way.

I suppose luck is a relative quantity, when you think about it. Funny thing: I’d never really noticed the police in Melbourne at all, and didn’t have any idea how they related to buskers. So shortly after nightfall, when two officers made their way across the bridge, then began hanging around me as I played, I—how’s this for idiotic?—I played directly to them, as I did to everyone who dawdled and watched for a time.

I guess I went into Sally Field mode—“You like me! You really like me!”—not once imagining myself to be in violation of the law, or in danger of having to face the consequences thereof. Like David played to Saul, with all of a young boy’s enthusiasm and sincerity, that’s how I played to the pair that would eventually halt the show, demand my passport, and tell me how it was going to be from that point onward, or else.

But fortunately for me, busking is so much a part of the fabric of public life in Australia that these two officers, though firm with their message, did not go on any sort of twisted Midnight Express jag to whip a rogue foreigner into line. In fact, the younger officer, clearly in her 20s, was soon ushered aside by her superior in the proceedings, no doubt because she had been fawning and stuttering over me (“An American singer!”) as if I’d just come off a record-smashing world tour with Mary J. Blige.

Her thirty-something partner had a different approach—more business-like, but no more officious than that of his giddy young colleague. Before he accused me of anything, he seemed more interested in whether the bridge was the best place for me to perform. When I mentioned ongoing difficulty in projecting my voice, he suggested I consider moving into the tunnel to the trains, where the wall tiles would enhance my sound instantly. When I raised the issue of the cigarette smoke that hangs permanently in the tunnel, he nodded in understanding, saying it was better to be where I was.

Then, suddenly, he began to quiz me briefly but explicitly, officially establishing my status as a common criminal before the two of them gave me a complete run-down on how and where to get licensed, and at what minimal cost. Ultimately, Not-So-Bad Cop told me that the next time the police saw me playing in the street, it would very much be in my best interest to be able to produce a current license.

As our official consultation came to a close, and I moved to put my guitar away, Not-So-Bad Cop shook his head, saying, “Go on and play out the night, if you like,” as Die-Hard-Fan Cop looked on with a great wide grin. I thanked them both and launched into one of my (paltry five) Greatest Hits as I watched them slowly disappear among the clusters of folk traveling over the bridge.

For all his determination to see justice done, Not-So-Bad’s last words to me had been these:

“Try not to sing into the wind”.