Busker bigotry

I have a confession to make. I am guilty of the crime of busker bigotry. I justify my sin by convincing myself that it's not my fault. It's one of life's greatest dilemnas: you can't drop a coin to every busker that you pass in the street. It's simply not feasible. You'd probably go broke; and even if you could afford to do it, there are a plethora of other reasons against doing it (e.g. constant weight of coins, stopping and getting wet if it's raining, risk of getting mugged, etc).

I was walking through the Devonshire St tunnel, in Sydney's Central Railway Station, about a week ago. 'The tunnel' is one of those places that seems to inexorably draw buskers to it, much like members of the female race are inexorably drawn towards shoe shops (whilst members of the male race are inexorably oblivious to the existence of shoe shops - I can honestly say that I can't remember ever walking past such a place, and consciously noticing or registering the fact that it's there).

Normally, as I walk through the tunnel - passing on average about five buskers - I don't stop to even consider dropping a coin for any of them. It doesn't really matter how desperate or how pitiful they look, nor how much effort they're putting in to their performance. I walk through there all the time. I'm in a hurry. I don't have time to stop and pull out my wallet, five times per traverse, several traverses per week. And anyway, I didn't ask to be entertained whilst commuting, so why should I have to pay?

But last week, I was walking through the tunnel as usual, when I saw some buskers that I just couldn't not stop and listen to. They were a string quartet. Four musicians, obviously talented and accomplished professionals, playing a striking piece of classical music. Their violin and cello cases were open on the ground, and they weren't exactly empty. Evidently, a lot of people had already felt compelled to stop and show their appreciation. I too felt this need. I pulled out my wallet and gave them a few coins.

This is a rare act for me to engage in. What was it that triggered me to support these particular buskers, when I had indifferently ignored so many before them, and would continue to ignore so many after them? What mode of measurement had I used to judge their worthiness, and why had I used this mode?

The answer is simple. I stopped because I thought: These guys are good. Really good. I like the music they're playing. I'm being entertained by them. The least I can do, in return for this, is to pay them. Basically, I felt that they were doing something for me - I was getting something out of their music - and so I felt obliged to pay them for their kind service.

And then it occurred to me what my mode of measurement is: my judgement of a busker is based solely on whether or not I notice and enjoy their music enough to warrant my stopping and giving them money. That is, if I consciously decide that I like what they're playing, then I give money; otherwise, I don't.

Nothing else enters into the equation. Fancy instruments, exotic melodies, and remarkable voices contribute to the decision. Pitiful appearance, desperate pleas, and laudable (if fruitless) effort do not. Talk about consumer culture. Talk about heartless. But hey, don't tell me you've never done the same thing. We all have. Like I said, you can't stop for every busker. You have to draw the line somewhere, and somehow.

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