The Saw Lady from NYC and The Spoon Lady, also on the East Coast
This article consists of three women buskers' answers to a set of interview questions about the topic of busking. The interviewer, and author of this series, Kirsten Anderberg, has been a busker for over 30 years. This article is organized with the question being posed first, then the women's answers follow each question. This organization allows the reader the most thorough means of comparison between the women's answers. There is so little documentation of women buskers' lives, throughout history, it is a void; I offer this article as one in a continuing series of women busker interview articles to try to at least leave a record of contemporary women street performers for future generations to enjoy.
The women buskers interviewed in this article are Natalia "Saw Lady" Paruz and Abby the Spoon Lady. The women buskers interviewed in this article answered the questions below in the winter of 2013. You will find other women buskers' answers to these same questions by visiting the Women Buskers Project Home Page.
1 - How long have you been a busker?
Saw Lady: As a musical saw player - since 1994. I did do a bit of busking as a tap-dancer earlier in the 90's, too.
Spoon Lady: I have been busking consistently for almost a decade. It started as a way to fund getting across the country, then turned into more of a way of life. I was hopping across the country on freight and wanted to play along to my friends. I'm not a very good beggar, so I figured making a few bucks that way beat the alternatives. There are no lack of great musicians on the rails and road.
2 - How and where did you start street performing?
Saw Lady: My very first busking experience was as a tap-dancer on the streets of NYC. My boyfriend at the time (who is today my husband) busked as a vibraphone player. I used to watch him and think "this looks like so much fun - I wish I could do that." At the time I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and I was also a professional tap-dancer. I asked the custodian of the Martha Graham Center if I might have a piece of wood that was part of the old set of a choreography named "Primitive Mysteries" (the set had just been replaced). Armed with this 1' X 2' board I set out to prove to myself that I have the guts to do it. I had a good time, but the problem was that an hour of tap-dancing on the street left me exhausted, in combination with dance classes and rehearsals the day long, I soon had to regretfully give up my new found adventure. Sometime later I was hit by a car, which put an end to my dance career. That is when I turned to music and taught myself to play the musical saw. Busking as a musician is a lot less tiring, I found. I started busking as a sawist when I was teaching myself to play. I had a job selling souvenirs at the Broadway theaters back then. In this job I had a lot of free time to kill, which is when I would take my saw out to the streets. I soon quit my job to become a full time busker.
Spoon Lady: A kid I was traveling with stole a set of spoons from some outdoor restaurant seating for me. At first it was tricky. Another kid named Sal taught me how to roll them down my fingers. I'm fidgety to begin with, so it stuck.
Natalia "Saw Lady" Paruz
3 - What is your busking act?
Saw Lady: I play the musical saw. My music is a mix of light classical, songs from movies & musicals, pop songs, international songs and original music. Example: http://youtu.be/lPvTTc7jAVQ
Spoon Lady: Professional spoon playing is my bread and butter. I'd be lost without it.
4 - Do you think there is any difference between being a male or female street performer?
Saw Lady: I think it is generally easier for men. They have stronger arms to schlep busking gear up & down stairs, and they don't get confused with people working that other ancient street job of women...
Spoon Lady: Being a female street performer can be an issue. I used to play solo spoons on a washboard, and sometimes late in Nashville. There are creepy people. Some women have an issue of being hit on while playing, especially solo. I'm usually playing with someone nowadays and it keeps the eeriness down a bit.
5 - Why do you think there are so few women street performers (as compared to men)?
Saw Lady: I don't know, except possibly the difficulties I mentioned in question 4.
Spoon Lady: Well. Hum. That's a hard one. I think plenty of factors go into that. It seems like more and more I'm seeing women, but I think traditional society is mostly to blame… those ideas of what a woman should be doing. I'm seeing more and more female buskers through just the few years I've been busking.
Abby the Spoon Lady
6 - What is the most inspirational busker act you have ever seen?
Saw Lady: A guy doing acrobatics with a ball on top a stone wall near the Eifel Tower in Paris. He had such control, and his moves were smooth and precise. Amazing artistry. He also chose his location to be very photographic.
Spoon Lady: Carrie Sue. Accordion player on the 16th street mall in Denver. I have a few videos I took of her on my YouTube channel. This woman was belting out protest songs she had written at the top of her lungs pushing this huge accordion. She had an oxygen tank, power chair, small adorable dog, and courage.
7 - What is the worst busking act you have ever seen?
Saw Lady: People who come to busk in the NYC subway thinking it will be "easy money" and a quick way to be "discovered". They never last very long. They tend to perform "into themselves," with their eyes looking down at their instruments, or staring beyond people. They make no attempt to communicate and GIVE. They only want to TAKE.
Spoon Lady: There are those who are drunk on Listerine, wandering around with two strings on their guitar. There are those who put all their heart into it and are just bad at it. There are those who are genuinely trying to do it right, but just don't. There are differences in opinions as to what is art and what is not and so on so forth. The worst was easily a man I saw in Nashville with a bucket on his head and two drumsticks. He was hitting his head and shouting Journey songs at the top of his lungs. He had to have cleared 3 or 4 hundred bucks that night, though. The tourists loved him, were taking their picture with him. Everyone was having a good time, and the police left him alone.
8 - What is your favorite tip ever received?
Saw Lady: There are so many, it's hard to choose. Here are two examples: One time I was busking at Times Square. All of a sudden I heard this big bang when something hit the bottom of my donations box...After finishing the song, I leaned over from my seat to look into the donations box, and I saw...a ginormous coin that looked exactly like a quarter, only really big, lying among many regular quarters. It turned out to be a box of mints, and the person who put it there was the head of the Mint candy manufacturing (get the double entendre of the word 'mint'?) Another time also at Times Square, a guy watched me for 20 minutes and was clearly enjoying the performance. I was sure he would give me a tip, so when he just left, I was disappointed. A few minutes later he returned with a big bouquet of flowers and put it in my donations box.
Spoon Lady: Teeth. The kindest woman tipped me doctors visits, minor surgery, sent me Christmas money, and bought me dentures. Blessing. She was only in town that night, had never seen me before. All out of kindness.
9 - Would you want your own children to busk? Why or why not?
Saw Lady: I don't have children, but if I did - hell, yes! Busking is not only the funnest thing I ever did, but it is also the most educational. One gets to learn so much about people, the city, and life from it. I believe busking turned me into a better person, not to mention has improved my playing ability tremendously. It gives self-confidence, and is a sure way to make friends. Because I busk, I enjoy the knowledge that no matter where I am in the world, I will survive because I have a means to make money and make friends. I know it for a fact because I put it to the test: I went to the Czech Republic and to Poland - places where I knew no-one and didn't speak the language. After a few days of busking I felt at home there, with store owners waving 'hello' to me, street drunks fighting the police off of me, and I started picking up the local language.
Spoon Lady: Yes. Busking is healthy. That does not mean I would take my child out to a downtown area after dark to busk, but some daytime busking for a child I believe is healthy. It teaches about how to earn a living, about your community. You meet great people, hear great stories. Busking has been a huge learning experience for me.
10 - What is the hardest part of busking? Getting or holding a pitch due to aggressive fellow buskers? Hatting the crowd? Hecklers? Street people, store owners or craft booth vendors bothering you? City regulations oppressive?
Saw Lady: It's all of the above at different times & places. But I guess the worse is oppressive city regulations. Because with all the other bothers, you can move away to a different street. But if city statutes prohibit busking, you need to move to a whole other city…
Spoon Lady: Getting a spot in some towns is annoying. I've been the one getting the spot at 4 am in New Orleans, and it's never much fun to draw that straw. I've also been the gal racing her ex-boyfriend to the spot at sunrise. Some cities have the two hour rule. I've come to appreciate that. Amplified buskers without manners are one of my biggest peeves. It's annoying and disrespectful to play outside of your "area" in a street setting. If you want to set up a full-on concert system then don't do it on the sidewalk. It makes the store owners and locals angry, which in the end causes more laws to be made. The only street vendors I've ever had issue with were Nashville hotdog guys. They like to get pushy. Street people. I love them….. mostly. I've been there. I understand…. some of it. I get panhandled a lot. Sometimes you'll get a panhandler or few watching you gather crowds, and they'll ask sometimes. The problem is $1 X 20 people asking = can't afford it. So I just say no. I've had homeless folks protect me from folks who live in houses too. I love America's colorful wildlife.
11 - What advice would you give young women buskers just starting out?
Saw Lady: Dress for the job. You want to dress like you're performing in a club? Go to a club then. Think of what it is you are trying to sell, what it is you want people to notice and appreciate, your body, or your art. If you present your art instead of your body, you minimize unpleasant attention.
Spoon Lady: Act like you own the place.
12 - What differences have you experienced between different nationality busking acts (such as, are European buskers different than U.S. buskers, etc.? Have you noticed any differences between male and female busking acts?
Spoon Lady: I don't notice much of a difference between the female and male busking acts. I guess I don't see too many women singing Waylon Jennings or David Allen Coe songs on the sidewalk. I have been seeing more and more female percussionists over the last couple of years on the road. I can say that I don't often see women leading bands. Hopefully that will change.
13 - Have you ever had to busk to be able to eat? Have you ever relied on busking for your rent? Did that make busking harder?
Spoon Lady: Yes. Every day, really. Busking is my sole source of income. But, the extreme… Yes. I've been there. I've been cold on a 30 degree night trying to come up with hot dog money. It can make it harder. It makes you feel alone. Makes it feel like time is dragging.
14 - What is the weirdest place/time you have ever busked in?
Saw Lady: Two examples: Times Square subway on New Year's Eve: as I looked around me I saw a "wall" of people, and not one of them was looking at me with bare eyes - EVERYBODY was looking at me through a camera lens. In Warsaw, Poland, there was a local busker who gave me a hard time. His act was to dress up like a brute, stand with an axe by a tree stump he brought with him, and have people take their photos with him. He was yelling at me that it was "his" spot. But I got there first, so I explained I was only going to be there a couple of hours and that I will never come back again to this spot. He didn't like my being there at all. People watching my act started to yell at him. A store owner came out to yell at the people who were in my favor. More and more people gathered and joined the argument, some in my favor, some in the guy's favor. There were maybe 100 people yelling and arguing on the street. When I saw a police car arriving, I quickly & quietly packed up and left. As I looked back from down the street I could see the large crowd still deep in arguments with one another, even though the reason for the argument wasn't there any more...
Spoon Lady: Sometimes it's hard to get rides hitching when there are three of you, and a dog. After trying to get a ride the "traditional way" (holding a sign saying NORTH) and having no luck for hours we decided to start playing music. It worked. Got a state and a half farther. We were playing Bob Dylan songs, having a good time, busking for a ride. Folks were honking and throwing money at us, taking pictures. I loved it.
15 - Is there anything that would make you think of stopping busking?
Saw Lady: Only bad health would do that to me. Even if I get to be a millionaire or win an Oscar award - I would still want to busk. I am addicted to busking :)
Spoon Lady: Sometimes I worry about my wrist and my tendons in my hand. Injury to my hand would stop me in my tracks. Sports injury is a serious concern for me, and I have to be careful. The way I play spoons is very full-contact in comparison to other instruments.
You can find out more about the Saw Lady at her website at www.sawlady.com or visit her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Natalia-Saw-Lady-Paruz-musical-saw-player/129253832734?sk=ap p_155326481208883.
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