, Newburyport, MA

May 15, 2014

For they shall inherit the spin cycle

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — You would think that after 35 years at a job or hobby, you are safely past the point where nothing surprises you.

And you would be wrong.

At least I am, and given my unusual pastime of busking, perhaps that’s how it should be.

More than that, I may have stacked the deck against my own tranquility — a quaint concept in these multi-tasking times — by doing something for the first time:

Busking Inn Street while my wash was in a dryer.

On a slow weekday I figure at best an hour of going through paces of new sheet music, but it quickly turns into a classic something-out-of-nothing raid.

Six tips as soon as I start, including one from three girls — high school, I guess — armed with cameras and microphones to find out what people today think of “transcendentalism.”

Buskers are magnets for film students. I’ve answered many, but I never heard a question approaching this before.

Somehow I never mention the literary movement of the early to mid-19th century — only because they focus on the present when they clarify: Do Americans have “too many distractions from what’s important?”

My answer seems to come from someone else, and it surprises me. Something like:

“Street-music is a transcendental act. Commissioned and subsidized by no one, free for all, at the mercy of any, a way to create and express thought and emotion and offer it to others unencumbered by anxiety over day-to-day distractions.”

No way I was that concise in real time, but all three smile and exchange glances at the word “unencumbered.” Reading their minds, I can’t resist a wisecrack:

“Your teacher’s going to like that!”

Before I leave Inn Street when I figure my thickest socks would be dry, two young skateboarders start clattering away nearby. Been through this so many times, I have a pat response: Walk over, to avoid raising my voice, and let them know:

“What you are doing is banned on this mall and anywhere downtown. Police will stop you.”

As best I can, I say it as if simply passing along information, and the kids — as most often happens — say “Oh,” as if thanking me for letting them know, and carry their skateboards elsewhere.

But these are times that try some souls who think that any intervention into any public act is un-American. This fellow is about 30, walking with his wife or girlfriend, pushing a stroller with a child. His voice is demanding:

“And just what gives you the right to play here while making them stop?”

My voice is matter-of-fact: “First of all, I didn’t make them stop. I told them something they need to know, that a city ordinance bans skateboards downtown. As for the other half of your question, the First Amendment covers street music.”

Indignantly: “But they are just kids!”

I glance down at the stroller, then back at him: “Is that what you’ll be saying in 10 or 12 years?”

As they walk away, I vent the indignation I withheld, and the music, new to me as it is, rides a surprising mix of driving tempo and transcendental feel.

After busking I often replay conversations occasioned by it in my head, in this case while folding clothes. I make short shrift of Mr. Let-It-Slide, Daddy Do-Whatever-You-Want, only wishing I had claimed to be doing those two boys a favor.

With a second glance at the stroller: “Something you might want to consider doing yourself years from now.”

But high school students with a project on — of all things — transcendentalism are not to be taken lightly. Hope those three girls and their teacher — bless that teacher! — might be reading this:

At the center of the best — and best-known — definition of transcendentalism is the noun that follows “unencumbered”:

“Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

From the Sermon on the Mount, this may be the most cryptic, provocative, challenging, arguable, seductive, maddening, yet liberating and reaffirming line in the New Testament if not in all world literature.

And only then in the Village Wash Tub do I realize that it’s also a precondition for what I do.


Jack Garvey can be reached at This is adapted from his new book, “Pay the Piper! A Street-Performer’s Public Life in America’s Privatized Times.”