The day I learned that “the street” does not love me
(This post is part of the forthcoming Bang It Out, vol. 4. Join me on Facebook to stay in touch about that!)
It’s over six months later, and I still flush a little when I remember the day my passport got stolen, while I was running the Smut Stand on Brick Lane in London.
Properly speaking, it wasn’t my passport they were after. That just happened to be in the little makeup bag in which I stashed my Sidewalk Smut earnings. Someone had to have been watching my process pretty closely to see where I was putting my money, and had to have gotten right up close to me to nick the makeup bag out of the purse AT MY FUCKING FEET, while I was distracted in the other direction talking to potential customers.
This was creepy, and embarrassing! I felt the epitome of naïve. I was definitely blaming the victim, that is to say, I was blaming myself: I could have done things differently, I should have done things differently, and even though I am now doing things differently, all the coulda-shoulda from that horrible day still occasionally echo around in my head. Fortunately this happened early on in my time in the UK, so I had the time to replace the bloody thing, but it was going to be extra expense to get it replaced, plus I had my video projector connector in that bag AND my stage lip liner and lipstick. All the usual stupid irritations applied. But my response went beyond annoyance and shame. I was actually crushed.
See, I trusted the street.
That might sound silly, maybe even stupid, but remember, for over three years I had been sitting out on various sidewalks, across North America and the UK, in mostly bad lighting conditions, by myself. I had learned to size up a location thoroughly, set up quickly and efficiently, fend off harassers and bullshitters of various sorts. I chatted with storefront owners, nodded to passing gutter-punks, smiled and greeted busking musicians on their way to and from their own preferred pitches.
If I spent enough time in a particular location, I began to feel connected. I could sense the rhythms of a city: the times that the clubs let out around that spot, the rumble of the underground passing below the pavement, when traffic would be bad, when it would let up. I really did feel like I was become one with this strange urban ecosystem, or maybe that’s not the right metaphor. I was thinking a more Dickensian model, with the buskers and bouncers and homeless people and water-sellers and pickpockets and street-teamers and shop proprietors and coal-carriers and cheeky match-girls… okay, no, those last two aren’t things anymore, but you know, all the people who weren’t actually punters, who weren’t tourists, I felt like we were all in this noisy, smelly, occasionally unpleasantly damp thing together.
God, I was dumb.
I mean, yes, we were all on the sidewalk together in those various places. If you are “working,” or “hustling,” or “busking,” or “gigging”—whatever the term is in your particular line of work—if you are trying to make some money at a time and a place when almost everyone else around you is trying to spend some money, I would argue that there is a certain similarity of perspective that emerges.
But it’s not enough. That one fatal afternoon in London taught me, hard, that just occupying the same sidewalk and trying to get money is not going to create enough solidarity for me to rely on, in a pinch, and definitely not enough for me to carelessly leave my purse open to.
I am tempted to say that there are class elements to this: I make some little bit of money out there. A fair bit, in certain places, more than many other buskers, more than all the homeless people. That has led to resentment, competition, and weird territorialism a couple of times, most memorably in New Orleans and in Glasgow, but probably in other places, too. Also, it’s a confusing service I offer, open to radical misinterpretation, even among street denizens who I assumed would have a less puritanical take on things than the normals. Even at my grittiest, backed up against the wall of the bike shop on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, “ABRUPT EROTICA” is still going to stand out, and make it difficult for me and certain other street habitués to get along.
These layers are there, along with gender, and race, and region, and education. I would love to discover some, any, research papers that have been done about the sociology of non-tourists/entrepreneurs in tourist zones. It’s fascinating to me! But not quite enough to make me feel any better about getting comprehensively pick-pocketed in the scrappy little home-on-the-street I was building up in my own head.
At the end of the day, there is no honor among thieves, and the ones who went after me, they did it because I was sitting still, and distracted. I was not their sister out in the rough-and-tumble hurly-burly. I was just another mark. I know it’s better that I recognize that, but it still hurt.
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