The world's best busker and the world's worst were playing side by side. The distant sound of waves on the beach (subsiding since last week's northerly), sea gulls squabbling over fallen ice creams or discarded chips, and tourists mulling over which eatery to attempt, were the background sounds in the air.
But here, in the moment, in the front row of awareness and under the verandah of the grocery shop were two guitarists, going at it solo, each totally into their art.
Neither was playing to a crowd, only to an inner muse. A thousand tourists or no, they would still play. I know; I have seen them both in identical poses on blustery SW winter days, their heads hunched against the squalls, only the tips of their fingers exposed through the ends of hand-knitted mittens. For buskers like these, their rewards are theirs alone.
Only on this now otherwise placid summer's day, their hats on the ground in front of them told different stories. The world's worst busker was moidering Stand By Me, hacking into chords as if dismembering a small furry animal with his stolid right hand, and with his left throttling the fretboard as if it was a turkey too scrawny for Christmas, even though Christmas was an eon away. His singing came out as a strangled plea, always half a beat behind. Which was curious, for he was the one who should have been making the beat in the song – wherever it was. Probably lost for ever. He believes the world will one day, surely, awake to his idiosyncratic delivery – just like it did with Bob Dylan.
Maybe he was distracted by his neighbour, so sublime, almost other-wordly next to him.
The world's best busker was honing into a complicated riff based on the extensive solo intro to Steven Still's Love the One You're With. He was all flying fingers and finesse. He bent over his guitar, the instrument and him one life force, one breath, one impulse. His fulsome head of black hair was alive, as if electrified by the very essence of the music flowing through him. He was very, very good at what he was doing. He was the rose in a fisted glove. He was the eagle flying with the dove. People passing by were amazed. Yes, they stopped and listened. Dumbstruck. Awestruck. But then they would walk on, as if disbelieving.
The buskers both stopped as our volunteer fire brigade went past, with yellow jackets flapping out windows as they struggled to get sleeves onto arms, and getting tangled up with each other in the cab. The driver swerved, being hit in the schnozz by a flying elbow. Two tourists on yellow mopeds took evasive action and came to shuddering halts on the kerb, one inelegantly over the handlebars on the grass behind. But beyond that, no one was hurt. The fire truck’s siren, and the hose end dragging on the road, momentarily crowded the world’s best and the world’s worst out of the soundscape of the pavement.
The buskers paused. And for a moment, both were strangely unmoved to begin playing again. They noticed each other, and sat for a moment in companionable silence.
So, a short quiet ensued (except, of course for the background sounds). Then, apropos of nothing, the world's best busker said: "I am lonely genius. I will never be recognised for how good I am, for what I could be." This revelation was uncharacteristic, for he seldom speaks – let alone bares his soul, abruptly, to a neighbour.
The world's worst had something to say in reply. As usual, a little off the beat. "I sleep at night next to a beautiful woman," he mused, "and we neither one wears clothes. She snuggles into me. We spoon in perfect harmony. She smiles at me every morning when I set out to play on this box here."
Another silence ensued, which they felt this time compelled to fill with music. The world's best played soaring stuff, mostly his own compositions, fingers flying, and notes taking to the air in complicated, ringing, syncopated melodies, with rhythms that stretched and intertwined, and tied themselves around themselves, and re-invented invention itself, yet never lost themselves in the process.
The world's worst worked his way doggedly through his set of seventies and eighties standards, that he still had to read from sheet music. It was like going into the hardware store from hell – there were the classic hits, all the old favourites, Shania Twain included, but somehow they had all been dismembered by a blunt instrument. At times the passers-by would stop and mouth a familiar chorus or two. It seemed they would do so to sing along with him, but in their own minds, sound better than him.
The buskers continued to do this until knock-off time for street musicians, which is whenever – but happened to be at exactly 3:47 pm on this fine day.
"How'd you do?" asks the world's worst of the world's best, in the present.
"Nothing, not a skerrick," says he (the world's best). "'Ah, wait a minute – there's two dollars in the fold of my hat here. I hadn't seen it before."
The world's worst is silently counting. He even has paper money in his hat. He says evenly, "I have a grand total of $93-30. And a few Turkish coins, and one Singaporean two dollar note."
He holds the money in his hand. Thinks a minute.
Then extends a gnarled, music-scarred hand. The faces of green queens, blue ducks, and orange Edmund Hillarys are visible in his offering to the world's best busker. If you know our money, it amounts to half of his takings.
I won't finish this story. I'll leave it to you to decide what happens next. But maybe it will provide a parable of the merits of simultaneously doing our best and muddling through.