Before I settled into making websites, I was something of a drifter. I spent my early twenties busking and hitchhiking my way around Europe. In retrospect, it was as if I were waiting for the web to be invented.
I eventually made my way to the town of Freiburg, in Germany’s Black Forest. There was still no sign of the web, so I continued to earn money by playing music on the street. German society has a reputation for efficiency and structure and, true to form, there were even rules for which times of the day were suitable for busking. I could play music on the street between 11 a.m. and noon and between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Playing outside those hours was verboten.
I sometimes bent the rules. Technically, I didn’t play on the street outside the officially designated times, but I did play under the street in a pedestrian passageway that had particularly good acoustics. I think I could legitimately claim that I was just practicing, and if any passersby happened to throw money into my bouzouki case, well, that was just a bonus.
The underground passageway had one problem. It was close to the local police station, and the occasional police officer would pass through on his way to work. One plainclothes policeman told me to stop playing the first time he walked past. When he caught me again, his warning was more stern. He recognized me. I recognized him. Even when I wasn’t playing music, we would see each other on the street and exchange glares. In my mind, I filed him in the nemesis category.
One day I was walking into town to find a good spot to play (during the appointed hours, I might add) when it started to rain. I didn’t have much further to go, but there was a tram stop right next to me and a tram was pulling up, headed in the right direction. “It’s only one or two stops,” I thought. “I might as well hop on.”
The trams operated on a trust system. You could just get on a tram, and it was your responsibility to have a valid ticket. This system was enforced with occasional inspections, but they were rare. I was taking my chances by riding the tram for two stops without a ticket, but it didn’t seem like much of a gamble. This was the day that my luck ran out.
Two inspectors got on the tram and started checking tickets. When they came ’round to me, I told them that I didn’t have one. The punishment for schwarzfahren—riding without a ticket—was an on-the-spot fine of sixty Deutschmarks (this was back in the days before the euro). I didn’t have sixty marks; I didn’t have any money at all. They asked to see my identification. I didn’t have any identification with me. They took me from the tram and marched me off to the police station.
One of the cops sat me down at his desk. He asked me for my details and pecked out my answers on his typewriter. Once he had my name and address, we got down to the tricky matter of figuring out what to do next.
I suggested that he simply let me go so that I could play music on the street during the appointed hours. Once I had busked up sixty marks, I would go to the transport authority and pay my fine. He gruffly pointed out the flaw with that plan: because I had no ID with me, there was no way they could know for sure that I was who I said I was or that I lived where I said I lived. So if they let me go, there’d be no incentive for me to pay the fine. I gave him my word. He didn’t accept it. We had reached an impasse.
At that moment, who should walk into the police station but my plainclothes nemesis. “You!” he said, as soon as he saw me. My heart sank. Now I was in real trouble.
“Oh, you know this guy?” asked the policeman at whose desk I was sitting. “He was riding the tram without a ticket and he doesn’t have money for the fine. He claims he’s going to make enough money to pay it by playing music on the street. Can you believe that?” he asked mockingly.
“Yes,” said the plainclothes cop. “He’s good. He’s got a really unique voice.”
I was flabbergasted! My sworn enemy was vouching for me! He looked at me, nodded, and continued on his way.
His word was good enough. They let me go with a slip of paper that I was to take to the transportation office when I paid my fine. I’m sure they thought that it was a lost cause, but I went out busking that afternoon and the next morning until I had earned sixty marks. Then I rode out to the transport authority—paying for my tram fare this time—and I gave them the money and the slip of paper from the police station. I kept my word.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s this: you should always give money to buskers.