I say "unknown" because I seem to have always reasoned my way out of this task without ever consciously facing up to the fact that the very prospect of it was entirely frightening to me. Only recently, once I made it a priority action item with a tangible deadline, did I realize that I was scared to death by it.
But yesterday, at 4:27pm, I hopped on the R5 at Ardmore and made my way into Center City, to Suburban Station, where I would--for only the third time* in my life--open my guitar case in public and start playing.
On the ride down, I tried not to think about it too much, but found my throat suddenly dry. I read a few pages from a book, then took several nervous sips from my water bottle prior to disembarking.
Getting off the train, I walked up the stairs to the main concourse, then across to the Paoli/Thorndale-bound platform, where I planned to set up. The platform was relatively empty. The next train wouldn't arrive for 15 minutes. I planted my guitar case next to a bench where a man in a pinstripe suit sat with white headphones in his ears and nervously unzipped my backpack; breathing heavy, I fumbled around with its contents--Juno Day CDs, a notebook, and an 8 1/2 " x 11" white sheet of paper with a photo and bio I had made up an hour before. I evaluated the audience on the platform, looking at each island of a person, noting their distance from me, their energy, their demeanor--would they be receptive or annoyed? (Maybe they would be indifferent.) I was stalling. But eventually, after about a minute of waiting, I opened my guitar case, put a few CDs inside, propped up the sheet of paper that explained who I was, and started playing a somewhat timid version of "A Day in the Life" by The Beatles.
I was a little nervous, but not too bad. I had practiced the song dozens of times. My voice was maybe quieter than it would be otherwise in the privacy of my home, or in an actual venue where I knew people had chosen to be there listening to me perform. (I think it's partly the fear of being judged, and partly the idea of disrupting or bothering someone that has kept me from performing in public...probably mostly the former.) By the end of the song, I was much more comfortable and delivered much more confidently. I was feeling great. A man wearing a navy blue SEPTA sweater vest smiled at me, nodding his head.
"Hey, sounds good," he said.
"Thanks!" I replied sincerely.
"You can't play on the platform," he continued.
"Oh," I said.
"Yeah, it's not allowed. You have to play upstairs. There are four designated areas, but you need a permit to play."
I politely asked how I might go about getting a permit, and he directed me to the office upstairs, where I found out that it's free, but the office that does handles the permits had just closed.
Feeling good about my attempt, I decided to make my way to Rittenhouse Square and try again.
Upon arrival, I found a young man playing acoustic guitar and singing at the northeast entrance, an older man playing guitar and singing near the southwest entrance, and a man wearing a top-hat playing violin in the center.
I made my way through the center of the square, then toward the northwest entrance, where I contemplated playing.
But I suddenly found myself even more nervous than I was before at the train station. It was a beautiful day and the park was packed. Everyone seemed to be very much engaged in conversation with friends, or listening to music with headphones, or reading a book--in short, they didn't seem to be lacking any entertainment or leisurely, pleasurable stimuli.
I stood watching the crowd for a minute, wondering if anyone could sense my hesitation. Then I decided to move back through the center of the square toward the southeast entrance, where I found a nice empty space at the intersection of two paths, and sat down my guitar case once more.
The next hour and a half went by decidedly well. This was the first time that I was ever committing to playing in public like this for an extended period of time, and, though it took a while, when the first person put a dollar into my case, I almost couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that someone I didn't even know had just put $1 into my guitar case, just because I was playing some songs on my guitar. It was incredible. The feeling of connection, recognition, accomplishment...this was something that had truly been outside my comfort zone for many years, and to have intentionally chosen to put myself into a position where I would have an interaction with a perfect stranger, and to share in that positive moment together, was really special.
It wasn't all positive--a high school kid who was hanging out with a group of friends yelled at me on two different occasions from over 50 feet away, then turned smiling to his friends as if looking for approval. I stared them down unemotionally while I continued to play, but it got in my head a little bit, if only for a few seconds. They left without any further interaction.
The overwhelming response from my audience of strangers was positive--a lot of smiles, a few people who thanked me, and one guy who, after the annoying high school kid yelled at me for a second time, said to me: "Fuck that guy. You sound great."
Around 6:00pm, I was approached by a sketch artist--a starving artist, you might say--who asked if he could sketch a portrait of me...for a tip. I offered to trade a CD for a portrait, but he politely responded, "I'm hungry." I laughed, then eventually gave in and told him to go for it. He sat and listened to my tunes for 30 minutes, interjecting conversation between songs while he sketched. I considered the conversation to be an added bonus to what was already a particularly invigorating and exciting experience.
When it was time for me to pack up and catch my train, I gave the day's earnings--$6.50--and a Juno Day CD to the sketch artist. He was exceptionally grateful, and said he was going to go buy some food.
Walking away from the park, I felt free and light--unencumbered, awake, alive. I had faced a significant fear, and had followed through with my commitment for the day. It was wholly satisfying.
*The first time was about a month ago, at the Ardmore train station, where I opened my guitar case on the platform to an audience of precisely zero. As people started to show up and wait for the train, I continued to play--albeit suddenly self-consciously--connected on a few positive head-nods, and after 20 minutes or so, closed my guitar case and left with exactly $0.00. A few days later, I went down to Washington, D.C. to visit Zac, and opened my case at Union Station while I waited for him to pick me up. I got in about three songs before he arrived.