Wayne Webster waves his fiddle bow in a slow circle that encompasses the Casa del Prado building in front and the Casa de Balboa building behind him.
"I got great architecture, great acoustics. I got lots of people, sunshine, fresh air. I even got some ducks that go by once in a while. I love ducks. If I don't make any money, I can still just take my fiddle to Pacific Beach for the sunset. I don't even put out my case for tips. Just want to play down the sun."
Years ago, broke and living in Manhattan, I never wanted for entertainment: the streets were full of it.
One day on 11th Avenue, for example, I passed a skinny man just as he grabbed a woman by the throat, bent her backwards onto the hood of a car and started slapping her face. The scene became interactive theater when I yelled something brilliant like, "Hey!" and moved to pull the assailant off his victim.
As he backed away, the woman seized the opportunity to attack... me! I dodged and retreated as she swung wild, roundhouse punches. She aimed a kick at my crotch, screaming, "Mind your own business, motherfucker!" The skinny man laughed. It was life as dark family sitcom.
My favorite street entertainers, however, were the musicians; they tended to be more endearing and much less threatening.
There was the wizard-like man with long, stringy white hair and purple robe who regularly pushed his full-size, upright piano (outfitted with wheels) a long way down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park, as cars and taxis whizzed past him. Under an echoing archway, he would bang out unrecognizable tunes he insisted were "classical jazz."
On one occasion, while eating my brown bag lunch in a plaza on mid-town Madison Avenue, a movie was being filmed to my left and a world-class, Julliard-trained brass quintet played to my right.
I was often made late for appointments by a wildly brilliant violinist who ripped through pieces by Mozart or Paganini under the vaulted, cathedral-like resonance of Grand Central Station. His fingers weaved furiously even as he bantered, told jokes, and relayed outrageous stories about the love lives and musical prowess of long-dead composers.
He played his violin so furiously and joyously that people in the encircling crowd would occasionally gasp. Money would overflow his opened violin case. Yet I recall the day he abruptly stopped playing, grabbed his violin case and dashed onto an arriving train, not bothering to gather the stray bills and coins that had landed near his case.
It was then that I realized not all street musicians play for the money, but to make people snap to a more alert understanding, if only for a moment, of the wonderful absurdity of being alive. I believe the violinist played to make people gasp.
After moving to San Diego, I began a quest for these kinds of characters. My search first led me to a heap of fruit and vegetables and flowers known as the Hillcrest Farmers Market. Here, Shawn Rohlf and his 7th Day Buskers-a tight-knit band of acoustic roots musicians-have been building a loyal following.
"Busking," Rohlf explains, referring to the British-Euro slang for street musicians and performers, "is an art. You've got to be good at grabbing people's attention and holding them there."
Between songs rooted in denim overall Americana, migrating Okies and broken-hearted drifters riding empty boxcars, Rohlf steps into the audience. He leans over to chat with Bill Gail, an 85-year-old sitting in a lawn chair. He then greets a young mother, her toddler bouncing in his stroller, stubby fingers reaching out for Rohlf's gleaming banjo, so tantalizingly close.
"Kids are the key," he says. "If they like you, like the music, they stop. If you can get the kids, you'll get the parents."
"And get the tips," interjects Steve Peavey, the Buskers' mandolin and guitar player.
All the Buskers except Rohlf work with other bands to cobble together their living. There's not a fortune to be made playing in the street, but Rohlf notes, "We always have an enthusiastic audience. And we get to play the music the way it was intended-no amplification."
Others, however, plug in. Jasen Cotton, an 18-year-old saxophonist who played the Poway and La Mesa Farmers Markets during the last two years of high school, sometimes played with a boom box.
"I would put CDs of rhythm sections on the boom box and then solo over that," he explains. "I hated doing it. It was just cheap. But playing for two or three hours, it was great practice. And I made enough money to buy Sebelius-a very cool music writing program. And I bought an X-Box."
But not just anyone can open a guitar case, play a few tunes and earn a little cash. To play in San Diego's streets and parks, musicians need a permit.
"We have a responsibility for the safety of all the people using the parks," explains Carole Rukstelis, a ranger who oversees the granting of permits to performers in Balboa Park. "With the heightened concern over security after 9/11 and to protect kids better, we started requiring a background check as part of the permit process."
Translation: Chances are slim that a crooning guitarist in Balboa Park is on the national list of sex offenders or suspected of terrorism. Musicians in parks like Balboa have been fingerprinted and cleared by the Department of Justice, San Diego Police Department and the city of San Diego Personnel Department. They're all required to display their permit to perform in an assigned, "designated area."
Wayne Webster is a 57-year-old Celtic music fiddler who has one of the nine spots allotted to musicians in Balboa Park. "This is the No. 4 spot," he explains. "The money isn't great, but it helps-supplements my income. Playing in front of people is a lot better than just playing in my room. But you'd be amazed at how people ignore you. Like you're invisible, a part of the scenery. Sometimes I feel like a palm tree.
"But I don't care," he says, motioning to his surroundings. "Look where I am!"
Rukstelis and her fellow park rangers keep watch over their annually rotated stable of 14 to 20 performers and handle the occasional complaints.
"There was this clown," she explains. "We heard he was being rude, yelling at kids. I mean, imagine a clown, in all that makeup and costume, yelling at kids! Once in a while there'll be a fight among musicians, usually over a spot. Or someone has been drinking."
Some street musicians, like Jerry Kalkhof, a 29-year-old "software guy" during the day and a bossa nova guitarist on weekends, fly under the legal radar. I spot Kalkhof riding a bicycle along 30th Street with a large acoustic guitar slung over his back. He's on his way to the North Park Festival.
"I play in the street all the time. No one's ever hassled me," he explains. "I mean, I'm not asking for money. I do it to jam with other musicians, connect with people. If it wasn't about my spiritual growth, I'd stop and do something else."
In addition to the municipal laws regarding street musicians, there are also unwritten but very real rules of etiquette.
"You never play within hearing distance of someone else," Kalkhof says.
"Everyone's competing for a spot," Webster explains. "If you aren't playing in your spot regularly, you should let someone else have it."
Rohlf tells of busking his way through Europe. "The rule is, you always ask someone who's playing, "How long you going to be here?' And they usually cooperate, and say, "Oh, 20 or 40 minutes," he explains.
Some, however, aren't as cooperative. Rohlf tells a story of one street musician who hogged the best spot in Amsterdam-a bridge reknown for big tips. Every day, Rohlf would ask the guy how long he'd be playing at the spot, to which the guy would respond, "Oh, three or four hours."
Finally, for better or worse, Rohlf beat him to the bridge.
"I start playing and it starts snowing," he remembers. "Soon, my fingers are freezing. Wind is blowing, it's snowing, there's no one coming by or tipping, but I'm determined to hold that spot. It gets worse: a bird flies over and shits on my hat. Finally, that guy shows up. I'm frozen stiff and I've got bird shit dripping off my hat and I haven't made any money. He's all pissed off that I've got "his' spot. He comes up and asks, "How long you going to be playing here?'
"And I told him, "Oh, three or four more hours.'"
7th Day Buskers will be featured onstage for Lamb's Players Theatre's production of Cotton Patch Gospel through July 26. 619-437-6050. www.lambsplayers.org or www.7thdaybuskers.com.