It’s only through deeper contemplation that the sometimes surreal experiences of life in New York City can take on meaning – the random events that transpire over a typical day can feel like you fell through the looking glass. That’s where those of us who choose to live here either get that blasé nothing-can-faze-me look in our eye, or we allow ourselves to become fazed, and wrestle with deeper resonances of life lived in such close proximity to others, and ultimately ourselves.

The other night I was going home, exhausted, from the ‘night job’ – via the Union Square subway. A young man was crouched and shrouded, performing some kind of puppetry. I saw enough peripherally to see some strings, and the many folds of brown material that covered his entire body, save his eyes. I fumbled in my pocket thinking this was interesting enough to tithe – I’d drop whatever I had in his hat and watch from a vantage point that would allow me to hear the subway’s arrival, and see what he was up to – and perhaps give more, who knows?

I dropped what change there was in my pocket in his hat, beside which was a cardboard sign that read “nothing” in quotation marks. There were a few dollar bills in the hat – and one ripped into pieces. After my coins hit the bills, I heard his voice, my stride yet unbroken:

“You gave me a penny?”

Startled, I turned – now knowing I wouldn’t watch whatever the performance was – and with a smile threw back:

“I gave you a dime, too!” with a laugh.

I turned and saw only his eyes, unblinking, his tone admonishing.

“That sucks.”

I tossed off a chuckling, offhand compliment to end the exchange and went downstairs to wait for my train, a little entertained, and a little unsettled. It wasn’t a minute or two of assembling my thoughts when I heard a voice at the top of the stairs:

“You can just have it!”

And coins tinkled and fell down the stairs, having been thrown back at me waiting at the bottom.

I was flabbergasted . Not that I thought my paltry change was so generous, but that it was met with such vitriol and offense. The rest of my evening I tried to make sense of this exchange and reconcile my feelings of embarrassment at my lack of generosity, and indignation at his refusal.

The point, however, is the conversation, and I thank him for this (perhaps this was the intention all along?) I have more question than answers about this encounter – I’m interested in your thoughts.

Firstly, can beggars be choosers? In this case the question is literal. But, it bears asking – can artists, whose work is really an offering, choose to refuse any money or opportunity? I think the answer to be yes, but at what point is choosing appropriate?

How much is meaningful? My first thought once I reached the bottom of the stairs was that thirteen cents is more than most artists get for a track play on Spotify. Does that make it okay to give artists less? An internet guru I like once said she had two tiers of payment – free and premium. Is it better to give nothing than something if the something is small?

When, if ever, does patronage become insulting? Is attention more valuable than currency?

The day after this incident, I had to email a lovely club a refusal for a gig – although my calendar isn’t full, I had to politely refuse an offer because it wasn’t fiscally sustainable.  I more gracious than usual, as I thought about the sound of pennies hitting tile beside me the night before…

Perhaps all of us at times must refuse something for whatever reason, but it might be better done in the spirit of accepting something else, rather than outright negation.

Please do comment, I’d love to know your musings on this.


4 Comments on “Keep The Change”

  1. Beautiful story thanks for being so vulnerable…I’ve given to beggars in front of my car what was in my coin box sometimes about that amount not artists though whatever that means…living by art is a choice ….best sw

  2. Hi Kristen, im reading this long after the event and i hoped youve healed from the experience. As a busker i depend on the generosity of New yorkers to get me by. This is my primary work. I enjoy singing my songs and i really appreciate whatever someone can give me because change adds up; believe me! I think what he did was wrong but i can understand his frustration. I would encourage you to forgive him. Sometimes, buskers spend hours and putting our hearts into our performances and very few people even acknowledge with a smile, let alone a dollar. I imagine he may have been at the tail end of a similar experience and having received little gratitude his ego probably had all he could stand for the day. I typically leave an area when i feel undervalued and pick another spot but i think public performers must choose to be very strong inwardly to face the indifference so common to big cities.

    It was nice of you to tip him whatever you had. You didn’t do anything wrong. He just chose you to release his frustrations. Dont take it personally. ♡

    • Kevin! Thank you for the thoughtful reply.:) I was grateful for the opportunity to ponder about art and worth and how we value performance. Thanks for reading and for making music for commuters of all kinds, and bravo for making a living doing it!!!! I tip my hat (and more than a dollar) to you 😉

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