For a long time, I liked the idea and imagery of Pike Place Market more than I actually liked going there. It’s beautiful in photos. In person, it’s easy to lose sight of that. It’s crowded, people create traffic jams by pausing in the worst places, and it can all seem a little frenetic. A rushed, obligatory stop for the cruise ship masses. But I’ve been going to the market regularly the past couple of months, first for photography and then to pursue a story on busking. Along the way, I’ve become a fan. It still makes me a little claustrophobic, but in visiting regularly and getting to know some of the buskers, I focus less on the crowds, less on being a curmudgeon, and more on the vibrant community that powers the market.
I started seeing the term busking on Instagram, in the captions and hashtags of Seattle musicians I follow. It’s one of those words you’re vaguely familiar with; you’re pretty sure you know the meaning from context, but it invites a dictionary visit. When I saw that a friend of mine, Claire Michelle, was going to start busking at the market, I thought it might be something worth exploring. I wanted to find out if busking implied something more than performing in public or on the street. For example, does busking convey an emphasis on certain styles or approaches to music? Were there any unwritten rules or guidelines for getting along when everyone is eyeing the same prime locations? I’ve met some artists, musicians, and photographers who are in the know, but uncovering the market’s ins and outs is shaping up to be a longer term project.
I tagged along with Claire in mid-April when she went to the market to apply for her busking permit. I hoped that the process wouldn’t be a morass of paperwork and a series of rubber stamping office visits. Bureaucracy isn’t evil, but peeking behind the regulatory curtain rarely makes something seem more romantic or artistic. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Claire completed the process in about twenty minutes. After sitting through a quick, informal briefing and handing over $30, she was armed with her busking permit, which was valid for one year, from 15 April through 14 April. According to the market’s guidelines, new performer permits are issued “starting the first Tuesday in April each year.”
Claire headed off to practice with her band. I wandered around the main market area. I wasn’t sure how many designated busking spots there were, but it seems like there are about four or five coveted locations in the vicinity of the intersection of Pine Street and Pike Place. It was just north of the iconic Pike Place Market clock and sign that I first saw Faith Grossnicklaus play. You can’t miss her. Vintage fashions, fantastic hats, a shock of blond hair, and incredible music rolling off her fiddle.
After her set, I asked her if she’d be up for talking about busking in the market. She’d just finished playing the fiddle for an hour straight and had to have been tired. She paused a moment, took stock of “dude with camera” (me), and said sure. There was a world wariness to her response that I appreciated. It wasn’t cynical or rude, but this clearly wasn’t the first time she’d talked to the media or photojournalists, and she didn’t need the exposure.
Over the next couple of weeks I tried to catch her performances, but our schedules weren’t matching up very well. When Faith went back to Oregon for a couple of weeks to see family, work on her ceramic art, and catch up with Roselit Bone, I sent some questions for the profile spot (forthcoming in Busker’s Way: Part II). I later caught up with her on 14 May at one of her favorite busking spots, between Left Bank Books and Pike Place Flowers. I got there early enough in the set to get some photos and to also just listen to the music.
After Faith’s set, I walked around with her as she checked the wait lists at other busking sites. She explained that buskers know which sites work for them and which ones don’t. The site just beneath the market sign is a favorite for a lot of buskers. There’s always a lot of traffic, and there’s room for an audience. It suits her friends Amber Hayes, Austin Bertak, and Kevin Buster, but it doesn’t work as well for Faith.
We walked north from the sign, into the lion’s den, the busiest section of the market. A tight corridor lined with flower stalls, restaurants, and fish vendors. A long-time Pacific Northwester, Faith knows her salmon. She stopped to point out her favorite place for it, a fish stall just north of the market sign. It was really crowded that day, so she made her way to one of the convenient, quiet exits leading back to the street. A vendor spotted her and called out, welcoming her back to town. Faith assured him that she was back for a while and would be able to tune his violin. Grateful, he smiled, waved goodbye, and said, “You’re an angel.”
From there we crossed the street to another of Faith’s preferred busking sites, just at the point where Post Alley resumes, next to some stairs leading up to a restaurant’s balcony. A young man was there playing the sax. Faith complimented his performance, and it was then that an older man, the musician’s father, explained to Faith that it was his first day busking in the market. Faith encouraged the young man to keep showing up, and she offered some advice – get some tape and Sharpies, and you’re on your way.
Another busker had the site reserved for the next slot, so Faith headed back towards Left Bank Books to see if the person in line behind her had shown up. We bumped into Amber Hayes on the way. It was Amber’s birthday, and the two discussed plans for a night of swing dancing on Capitol Hill. Outside Pike Place Flowers, Faith interrupted the birthday planning with an excited cry. “Hey, it’s Cool Ice Cream and Flower Lady.” Amber must have heard Faith discuss Cool Ice Cream and Flower Lady before because she echoed the excitement. The three realized they’d never introduced themselves and remedied that, but once you get a great nickname like that, it tends to stick.
Amber, armed with fresh flowers for her mother, headed off. Faith took a phone call, and I slipped away, anxious to download my photos. I crashed the birthday party later that night at Century Ballroom. The group of musicians looked even more stylish in their swing dancing attire. It was nice to see that their cool, vintage clothes aren’t a uniform they put on for an hour at a time to attract the attention of tourists visiting the market. I wouldn’t fault a busker for doing that. If you’ve got the courage and talent to play live music in front of people, adding a level of showmanship seems like a smart move. But I liked being in the company of these musicians in their fancy clothes, sipping drinks in a saloon next to a big dancehall. It allowed me, clad in some drab practical Seattle attire, to feel like I’d landed in New Orleans in the Roaring 20s.