In the past few months busking my way across Europe, my performances have been shut down by permit-obsessed cops more times than I can count. I no longer wonder if it will happen, but when, and whether I will have time to make enough for the day’s food and bed and train ticket before the jig is up, or if I’ll wind up digging deep into my case for a handful of coins to buy myself a couple beers upon which to float my sense of humor back into port.
It’s not that I’m unwilling to play by the rules: it’s that these permits one always seems to need never seem to be available until one no longer needs them. The cops are always telling me I can apply for the papers tomorrow or, in the event that I’ll still be in town tomorrow, the next day. Once, in Brasov (Romania), I turned up at the city offices bright and early with my permit request neatly written out and translated into Romanian. “How long are you here,” asked the bureaucrat, shuffling forms. “One more day,” I replied. “Ok. The permit will be here in 5 days.”
I suppose I should consider myself lucky: A warning with no consequences seems standard on the first encounter, but I’ve heard stories about buskers being issued citations, belted with heavy fines, and even having instruments confiscated (you touch my guitar you’d better have your other hand on that nightstick, Kojak). In Prague an officer told me I could be fined 1000 Czech crowns for playing without a permit. “Maybe,” he said with a shit-eating grin, gesturing at my case, “maybe there is 1000 crowns in there.” (It was 600). Here it comes, I thought, here comes the old street corner shakedown. It didn’t happen, but it could have. It has happened and does happen.
This kind of thing really jams my giblets. I used to wonder aloud if Lancaster Central Market should institute audition-based permits for street performers (the Italians say “artista di strada,” which, like so many of their sayings, is a little song in itself) to keep apathetic street kids, mumbling junkies, and unwashed, untalented strum bums from keeping the good spots from hard-working performers (nothing against beginners- they should be welcomed and encouraged at any open mic night in the land). But I say unto you: fuck permits and the forms they rode in on. Buskers can work things out among their own ranks with a little bit of basic honor and courtesy (I find that if you tip a performer and then politely ask when he’ll be finished, he will usually give you a time, sometimes even hold the spot for you), and passers-by can vote with their money on who they prefer to support. To paraphrase Robert Hunter, “Let there be songs to fill the air and change to fill the hats.”