Oct. 10 2012 12:00 AM

The battles of the Lansing buskers


Commuters along Michigan Avenue have noticed a change in scenery in the Frandor area: a steady succession of sad faces holding cardboard placards pleading for cash. “Anything helps,” the signs often say. That’s just one of the hitches local street entertainers come across while performing on the city´s sidewalks.

Greg Robertson, a local musician, says those non-performing sign holders are dipping into the profits of the buskers, the street performers who offer up talent for cash tips. 

“We figured there’s got to be good money in it, and she was right," Robertson said. "I make the most money on that corner.”  Robertson pays the $25 annual fee to perform on the streets legally, and can often be seen singing and strumming his acoustic guitar beneath the overpass at Michigan Avenue and U.S. 127. He began busking in 2009, and says he has his doubts about some of these sign-holders. 

In his years living as a “gypsy,” the tatty tune writer said his cash flow has increased since he ditched downtown East Lansing for the busier traffic of Michigan Avenue. 

“People roll down their window, listen, wave and honk,” he says. “I’ve had thousands of cars pass by and I’ve only ever had three negative responses.”

Strummer Ellis Mason, 35, has been busking since 2008, and said for the most part he also gets positive feedback. He performs in both downtown Lansing and East Lansing, and said he’s had a few close calls. 

“At night, it’s a whole different thing in Lansing,” Mason said. “There’s a ton of drunks out there. Lansing, for whatever reason, gets wilder than East Lansing at night. I’ve witnessed first-hand people breaking windows of businesses and vomiting on the sidewalks.”

Mason said it could be lack of authority figures on Washington Square that lets things get a little out of hand. 

“There was an older guy that came up and threatened me a while ago,” Mason said. “He threw a beer bottle at the bench I was playing at, and it broke next to me. Then his family showed up, three more guys and they all wanted to put the whaling on me. Luckily a friend of mine was there and helped me out, but usually I’m just one guy and I get worried. There are only four cops for the area and there’re 800 people out there.”

Another fixture in the street-performing scene is Alexis Dawdy, a 24-year-old classical violinist. She is licensed to perform in front of Kewpee’s Sandwich Shop on Washington Square, which has been her spot for three years. She says she doesn’t plan on giving it up to fellow buskers. 

“I don’t move around to avoid turf wars,” she said. “It’s just common courtesy not to invade somebody’s sound space. That’s why I got the Use of Public Right-of-Way license. If someone is there I can ask them to leave because I have a sheet of paper with four important signatures on it, including the mayor’s. It costs $25 per year, but I make well over $25 in a day.”

Dawdy, who is also a novelist, says she’s managed to remain debt-free while attending Michigan State University for linguistics, and also avoid the dreaded day job. 

“I’m happy to be in good with the city, it’s worth it,” she said. “My work day is three hours, and on an average day I make between $60 and $80. On a good day I can do $120.”

But along with the good comes the creepers. Dawdy said she has had a few lurkers in her time, with one incident over the summer eerier than most. 

“There is one guy who took pictures of me,” she said. “At one point he came up and handed me a pack of dated photographs that span three years. At first I was flattered — I´m kind of naive. But I showed some people and they went, ‘Oh my God, this is setting off so many alarm bells.’ “

So with the dangers of the streets, why do these musicians prefer concrete slabs to wood stages? Robertson said it’s the freedom and irreplaceable mental salutary that comes with the territory. 

“Music is therapeutic and soothing,” Robertson said. “I just like listening to it. And that’s what´s great about being a musician — if I ever want to hear music, I just play it.”