Dublin: from Solo Traveler to Busker
“Could you spare any change?” a man said as I rounded the corner from York Street to Grafton, one of the main streets in Dublin. “I just need enough money to stay in a hostel for the night.”
I was 19 and had just set off to travel alone in Europe for the first time with only my ukulele and a small suitcase. Though I had horrible stagefright and wasn’t planning on performing with my ukulele, I figured singing and writing would help to keep me sane throughout my travels in eight countries alone.
The man asked again. However young and inexperienced a solo-traveler I may have been, I was still far from unaware of the ruses people played to get money from tourists. While traveling with family in Paris a few years prior, a woman had even dumped some sort of a sticky, smelly concoction of goo on our backpacks and then offered to take our bags and clean them for us. And while in Rome the year before, we’d been handed several roses and hand-made bracelets seemingly for free, until we began to walk away and were harassed for money. I therefore thought it best to ignore the man and looked away, everything to my right suddenly becoming riveting.
He stepped closer, now asking me directly. Finally, I turned towards him and who I assumed to be his family. His clothes hung from bony limbs and pale skin, and a woman similar in age—probably mid-20s—with red grease-slicked hair rocked a baby in her arms. I raised my shoulders and shook my head in response, and eventually blurted out, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me,” before quickly walking away. I hated turning down beggars with dogs or babies, but reminded myself it wasn’t my responsibility. Being a broke college student myself, I had to save money for the rest of my travels. The excuses allowed my guilt to die down long enough for a stroll up and down the red brick-paved pedestrian walkway on Grafton.
It was a sunny and warm summer day with Dublin’s infamous rain having died down after a dreary Wednesday, and the street was brimming with people enjoying the city. Locals and tourists from all over the world were gathered on Grafton; I heard conversations in Russian, Chinese, German, and more as I made my way down the road. It was lined with shops of all sorts—high-end jewelry and clothing boutiques, a Disney store, chocolate shops, fast food chains, and more—in residential-turned-commercial buildings, each one adding to an architectural mix of Victorian, Gothic and even ornate Italian styles.
What really made Grafton come alive, however, were all the street vendors and street performers in front of these beautiful historic buildings. After passing St. Stephen’s Green Park and the homeless family at the start of my outing, I encountered something/someone new on every corner. In a span of about 10 minutes, I saw a group of five break-dancers doing flips and tricks to the beat of a boombox with a large crowd gathered around, a florist setting up shop outside a pharmacy, a frail older man sitting on the ground and playing Mozart on a weathered violin, a man in silver metallic clothes and paint standing completely still and dancing only when money was dropped into a bucket beside him, and a band equipped with drums, guitars, and a full sound system playing Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” Later I got to see a band playing Irish music as well, with the lead part played by a man on the flute. The street was rich with energy and culture, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the homeless family. That’s when it occurred to me what I would do.
I quickly walked back toward the corner where the family was standing and was equally relieved and nervous to find that they were still there. I slowed down and began to approach them.
My heart raced and I felt my face flush. No, I can’t do this, I told myself and walked past them once again. Once I rounded the corner and was out of sight, I collected myself. I’m doing this. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I turned back again and walked right up to the man.
“Hi. Listen, I really wanna help you guys out but I don’t have much money. I’m staying in a hostel myself. But I was thinking; I’m traveling with my ukulele so maybe I could play on the street and make you enough money for the night,” I said before I could stop myself.
The man’s face brightened. “That would be amazing! I’ll even watch out for you while you perform and make sure no one tries to hurt you or steal from you.” I hadn’t thought being hurt or stolen from might be a concern, and decided not to dwell on it. I was nervous enough already. “What’s your name by the way?”
“John. Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking my hand. “Thank you so much!”
“No problem, I’m happy to help. I’ll get my ukulele and meet you back here soon.”
And with that, I was off—and still in disbelief that I’d made the agreement. Is this even legal to do without a permit? I wondered. Even if it is legal, how the heck will I do this when I’ve only performed once before in front of about ten people? What if I lose my voice or it cracks, or I forget the words? I’m gonna sound like crap, especially compared to real musicians who do this all the time. The rush of adrenaline kept me going though, and I jogged back to the hostel to grab my ukulele, now with just two thoughts running through my mind in constant rotation: I’m doing this, and This is insane. There’s no way I can do it. But I couldn’t let John down.
On the way back to Grafton I passed a small pub. The only inhabitants were two older men, one the bartender and the other a customer or friend sitting and chatting with him at the bar.
I marched up to the bartender, feigning confidence despite my heart beating so fast it felt like I was having either an asthma attack or a panic attack—maybe both? I set a few euros on the counter and said through loud, deep breaths, “Two shots of Jameson, please.” Some liquid luck—just enough to calm the nerves and clear the pipes, I told myself.
The men stared at me with a look of confusion, but the bartender complied. With no hesitation I finished the shots in two big gulps. Though I was trying to avoid looking at the men, I’m pretty sure their eyes shifted back and forth from me to my ukulele case the entire time. Feeling extremely uncomfortable (a good reason to keep moving!), I left to find John.
When I got to the corner where he’d stood, he wasn’t there. I wandered further down Grafton in search of John and his family. A few minutes later, they appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” John said. He put a hand on my back and guided me toward the busiest part of the walkway, pointing out places I could perform. Nothing seemed good enough. I had no microphone nor amplifier of any sort, and began to question whether people would even be able to hear me with how busy Grafton was that day. I was convinced I’d look completely amateurish next to the other talented musicians on the street who must’ve done this a hundred times before. There was no more backing out anymore though.
Finally, I found an empty spot less noisy and crowded than the others. I’m doing this—the only thought I allowed myself from there on, because if I’d thought about what I was about to do, there was no way I’d have had the courage to do it. So I sat down, set my case in front of me, and started to sing. John moseyed around, always staying within sight, while his family wandered off.
The first song I sang was “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. When I finished it, John walked over and simply said, “Wow, you can really sing.” That gave me the confidence boost I needed to keep going, and to sing the way I knew I could.
After the second song, a man dropped ten euros in my case and said, “I saw you here earlier and you were really good.” He must have confused me with someone else but I wasn’t going to tell him that. I thanked him and continued.
Throughout an hour of playing, I was surprised both by people’s generosity and especially by the myriad of people who approached me just to ask questions about myself. I met a father and son from New Jersey who had to decided to travel the United Kingdom together. The father had a black circle around his eye, as they told me they’d been violently mugged the day prior. I lamented with them and shared that I was a university student and had just begun travels including medical and research internships in Germany and Switzerland that would help me reach my goal of attending medical school one day. Despite having lost their credit cards, some cash, and identification in the mugging, they gave me my biggest donation at €20 and said, “I think it’s great what you’re doing. Keep going.”
During the next song, an Asian woman stopped and took a video with a big iPad. At the same time a young couple, a woman with tattoos and a flowy skirt and a man with big-framed glasses and a goatee, stopped and listened as well. The young woman closed her eyes and swayed back and forth to the rhythm. They each tossed a few coins in my case and continued on their way after a couple songs. Later on, a young man in dress pants and a button-up stopped and said, “I work around the corner and hear people here all the time. You’re pretty talented. Sorry I don’t have any cash on me, but I wish I did.” He passed me on his way back to work later and simply gave me a thumbs up.
After that hour of performing and conversing with several interesting and gracious people, my voice was raw and I’d run out of songs ready for performance, but had made €51.43. I waved John back over.
“You can take all of it,” I told him.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll just take the nine euros I need.”
I handed him the nine euros. “Are you sure? I did this for you guys and really wouldn’t mind if you took it all.”
John hesitated. He seemed unsure of what to tell me, but finally said, “Listen, you’ve been so nice I feel like you should know…I just wanted this money for some weed.”
Though I was shocked and initially disappointed by his response, I knew it was because of him that I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone and met some incredible, kindhearted people. I laughed it off and decided I’d treat myself to a nice dinner that night with what I’d earned.