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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Overcast
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Singing the busker's blues
It's hard to get a buck, much less anyone's attention

From the look of it, there's not a lot of busking in Hinsdale, Illinois. The Chicago suburb is the land of big. Big houses. Big lawns. Big cars. The downtown square is neat as a pin. Two-story brick buildings stand upright, as starched as the Sunday morning shirts of the men who glide in and out of Starbucks.

That's where I unpack my banjo. A couple of women look up from their lattes and watch me through the glass, relieved that I didn't uncase a rifle.

I associate busking with cracked urban sidewalks and dank subway stops. None of that here.

I have the afternoon to kill while my daughter and her friends rock out at Lollapalooza. We stayed the previous night at my brother-in-law's (big) Hinsdale house. While the teens hit the fest, the rest of us shared a blanket across from Grant Park and listened to Wilco for free.

Free Jeff Tweedy aside, you can't clear your throat in Chicago for less than $25. And now I'm low on funds. Somewhere into my third cup of coffee this morning I got the busking idea. Throw open the banjo case, pick a few numbers I know well and, bam, head back into Chicago with enough cash to get into the last night of the festival.

The median income in Hinsdale is $105,000. I tune up and visualize the fat nest of bills in my case that is sure to form around the starter buck I've already contributed. This ain't no State Street, where a passerby may have less in his pocket than you do.

Okay. I admit it. I've never busked on State Street. I've never busked anywhere until today, and as I position my hand on the fingerboard, my stomach burbles a spot of nervousness.

I've performed in front of plenty of paying audiences, so my nerves make no sense. The difference, I decide, is the money up front. Paid patrons know what they're there for. Busking is like cigarette smoke. Nobody asks for it, but it'll still get in your face. Busking is the art of performing for people who don't invite it.

My repertoire is made up of songs with people's names for titles. It reads like a phone book: Bill Cheatum, Joe Clark, John Henry. Halfway into "Angeline the Baker," I'm deep into the reality that Hinsdale is not the Hillbilly Music Capital of the Midwest.

Now a smiling set of grandparents make their way down the sidewalk. They slow their pace and I pick up mine, striking the notes hard so they'll ring clear. Big finish, I work through the final flush of changes in "Little Sadie" and let the last sweet chord resonate. I look up, and the couple's smiles grow. Grandpa reaches into his pocket.

"Where's the train station?" he asks, pulling out a piece of paper with scribbles on it. I point them around the corner.

I'm into the second lonely hour of the program, and now a woman in a pretty tennis outfit backs out of Starbucks, double-fisting coffee drinks. She starts talking to me about how the server got her order wrong. "And so the counter girl told me to 'just give the iced coffee to the banjo guy out front,'" she finishes, offering me the plastic cup.

It won't get me into Lolla, but it sure hits the spot. Plus this represents a breakthrough, an actual cause-and-effect music transaction.

Late afternoon. I'm no longer nervous but my confidence is waning. The banjo is an atom bomb of an instrument, and to go unnoticed while the thing sounds off is surreal. A grim-faced George Washington looks up at me from the bottom of my case. "What were you thinking?" he asks.

I decide to go for broke with a formal finish. I stand.

"I want to thank you for your kind attention this afternoon," I say in a loud voice. A family looks up with interest from locking their bikes. A young couple veers toward the scene with curiosity.

"My name's Andy Moore, and I come from Madison, Wisconsin. I've had a wonderful time. My last song of the day is an old mountain tune called "Needle Case," and I hope you like it."

If the tune itself had a little more kick I don't think people would have peeled away so quickly. Not that they ran. But it doesn't look like I'll be asked for an encore. I'm all by myself again.

I'm not the only one clocking out at 4 p.m. A barista emerges from the store, her face red from working the hot steam. Our eyes meet and exchange the warm, knowing look that service industry people reserve for their own. I knew right away.

"Thanks for the iced coffee."

"No problem, banjo-man," she says.

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