Mabel busking in San Francisco

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Mabel at Union Square

Let’s say your husband and daughter had concocted a scheme for her to do some street busking during your vacation. And let’s say she had spent a lot of time learning several songs beforehand. (Her goal was twenty songs, but she “only” got ten or eleven learned.) Would you let your daughter set up on a street corner, and sing for strangers?

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I couldn’t think of any objective reason she shouldn’t do it–and I did think the idea sounded cool. But I was afraid that she’d get kicked out of a space, or get in someone’s way. But I told myself that if that happened, she could just find another spot. And I also reminded myself that some of my musician friends have made extra money busking while traveling, and that as far as I knew, nothing bad had ever happened.

I was glad Dean was completely in favor of the idea. I’ve heard that dads are often the ones to push their kids to try new things. Hooray for dads.

So, during one of our afternoons in San Francisco, after we got lunch in Chinatown, Mabel found a corner at Union Square, set out her ukulele case for tips, and started singing. She was pretty nervous at first, but she warmed up to it after a while.

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This lady was one of Mabel’s biggest fans–she said her dad was a blues singer, and she was, too. She joined in with the chorus on one song, and then asked Mabel to keep playing while she did some freestyle rapping.

Lots of people walked by without stopping. Some did double-takes. One girl who looked like she was about Mabel’s age was staring at her with a look on her face of, “You can DO that?!”

Dean and I wanted to give Mabel space so we kept a bit of distance, and people would look relieved when, in response to their questioning glances, Dean would nod that, yes, he was her father.

At Union Square it was very noisy, but some people did stop to listen. Tourists stepping off buses would take their picture with her. Many gave her small change, and some were more generous. After a little more than an hour, she had a pretty big pile of cash.

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A couple of days later, we let her have another go of it at Fisherman’s Wharf. She found a bench near Pier 39.

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This time was even more crowded than at Union Square. I stayed nearby while Dean took the younger kids to see the sea lions, and although I still felt a little nervous on Mabel’s behalf, I also had a great time people-watching.

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It’s so interesting to see how crowds form. Twenty-or-so people will walk past without stopping, but as soon as one person decides to stop and take a picture, others will stop to see what they’re taking a picture of, and soon there will be a group. A few women who looked like college students were about to walk away, but stopped to listen for a moment, and one said, “She has a good voice.” They ended up listening through several songs. When Mabel would finish a song, the whole crowd would applaud.

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It’s also interesting to watch people make the decision to donate some money. Some drop a dollar or two in a swift, practiced motion. Others, even after they’ve gotten a dollar out of their wallet, take time to work up the courage. Often families will send the smallest one in the family to do it.

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The cute toddler in the newsboy cap had just finished putting a dollar in Mabel’s ukulele case–which he had had to chase after it blew away on his first attempt.

At Pier 39 in only about 40 minutes Mabel made nearly the same amount as previously, this time all in one-dollar-bills and coins.

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Tithing and putting half in long-term savings still left Mabel with plenty of spending money.

It turns out to add quite a bit of excitement to a vacation when, for a little while, someone in your group becomes the tourist attraction. And it’s also fun to know that from now on, if Mabel ever runs out of cash while traveling, she has an easy recourse.

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10 Responses to Mabel busking in San Francisco

  1. Acheté says:

    I’ve been waiting for this post, and I was not disappointed. How fun! Sending the littlest one adds to the entertainment value for parents, I’m sure. Go Mabel!

  2. Rachel Matta says:

    Amazing. Wish I had passed by! :)

  3. Aunt Ginger says:

    Good for you, Mabel! I’m glad you had (parental) backup, though. The streets can be kind and not so kind. We’ve got lots of good corners in D.C., though there is that famous violinist who played in Union square and got little attention for his efforts.

    • zstitches says:

      Yeah, we had a good experience, but I would definitely not want to leave her alone. And Dean was talking about taking her to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, but I nixed that idea.

  4. Aunt Ginger says:

    The reference I made to the famous violinist was Joshua Bell, whose experiment with busking at the Union Square Metro stop was sponsored by The Washington Post. You can view his experiment on YouTube under (something like) Stop and Hear the Music. If you enter his name in the search box, it will pop up quite readily.

    • zstitches says:

      I’ve seen that, and was thinking about it while Mabel was busking. I think a talented kid gets about as much attention as anyone could, but I also cut people some slack because I know that I can be pretty single-minded if I have a destination in mind; I’m not sure I’d have been one of the few who stopped to listen to a world-class violinist.

      I imagine that after this experience all of us in our family will be more likely to be generous with buskers.

  5. NotMolly says:

    My face hurts from smiling. I’m so glad she got to do this! How very cool! (And she does have a nice voice; the tourist was right. :) ) Very, very, very cool. (My brother and his wife, when first married, camped and worked their way from Oregon to Pennsylvania, stopping to busk and play small venues when they needed cash.)

  6. I’m a busker, and know that cute kids are the second biggest money earners on the street (the top earners being the highly skilled performers). I know a juggler from Philly who started when he was 12, and by 18, had enough money to buy a house. I do magic, which brings in less money than jugglers, but I can earn more in legitimate venues. I wrote a book, Be a Street Magician, http://www.amazon.com/Be-Street-Magician-David-Groves/dp/0966814703/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214804689&sr=1-1. I’ve just published a novel, What Happens to Us, that has a busker character. I’m going to perform on the street this weekend in Monterey.

  7. Liz Neil says:

    Don’t we all wish we had this kind of confidence! Way to go Mabel!

  8. Helen Hall says:

    Since Mabel is both a cute kid and a highly skilled performer, she has a great future in busking,, for a few years anyway. Then she’ll be ready for the beautiful young woman highly skilled performer, and she’ll probably only need to do this between highly paid performances!

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