Saturday, September 10, 2011

Denver and the Busker

My first meeting in Denver took place, conspicuously enough, outside of a Starbucks on the 16th street mall. If you know anything about me or my project, you know how this freaked me out. Luckily, I was meeting a man who was able to distract me from my location and occupy it with a conversation which inspired hope for the city of Denver and people in general. Tovio is a busker, (street performer), who looks very much like someone I used to know, but behaves unlike anyone I have ever met. We sat outside of the Starbucks on an uncharacteristically rainy day in Denver and he told me why the corner across the way is his favorite Denver place.

Tovio in front of that place.
"I make my living busking. I do it on that corner across the street. It's nestled in the midst of all this corporate garbage. Crazy things happen on this little block. All the homeless people and the junkies are down here to hustle, and I have a rapport with most of them. It ends up being my social life, in spite of how abstract it is from my general reality. It grounds me back into the public sphere. It's my favorite place because it is the place where I spend most of my time. All the people who work down here know me, and I get to interact with random oddballs."

Tovio speaks softly but intently. His perspective comes across like watercolor; exact and detailed with gestural washes of color. He speaks of the people he meets on the street with an air of detached compassion.

"It can be kind of weird because there are meth heads down here, and they are out of control sometimes. Then, on Friday and Saturday nights all the drunk cowboy/frat boy people go up and down the mall. They are either really into what I am doing, or sometimes they will try to attack my instruments. They can be very caustic, abrasive people, but they are also really intoxicated when they are doing that.

As he tells me about the meth heads and the cowboys, he seems slightly amused by their presence and antics. He relays the high points of his experiences on the street as if he is a rock in a stream observing the water flowing around him. He goes on to tell me about Denver and what he sees happening in its development as a city.

"It is an interesting place. I get to be very central and observe the Denver that Denver wants people to see, plus the uglier side of Denver. Denver is actually completely different than this area. Denver is sort of a big tiny town in a way. They tore down this whole area, (the 16th street mall), re-oriented it into this odd direction, and made it look really corporate, kind of like they wanted a "real city". So they built this abstract thing, and aspects of a real city have crept in, but not in the way that they would in any other city. As much as people are hustling down here, there is an innocence to it. You can be a junkie down here and not be directly involved in the violence of that type of drug culture. I think that is the strange thing. For the drug culture and the other darker elements down here, there is very little violence.  I come from Detroit. That is a violent city." 

Tovio's corner.
As I start to question the wisdom of going to Detroit for my project, Tovio tells me that his act is a little bit outside of the norm for busking, and that he struggles with making a living with it. He says that he has done much better with his act in other places. Even in Detroit.

"I have a metallophone. It is like a xylophone but the bars are made out of metal. I juggle and play it. I have been juggling and playing music since I was a kid, so it just occurred to me one day that I could do them together. I was able to do it well enough that I actually did it on stage four or five days later.  It's nice because no one has ever seen that, it is visually attractive and sounds pretty nice.  There is an issue, though, because with busking you need familiarity. I want people to be familiar with what I am doing because I want them to know what they are supposed to do. There are a lot of people who make good money, but I make only a moderate amount. Denver is one of the worst cities for busking. I have made much more money in other cities.  Santa Cruz, Chicago, Detroit was better. I would make a hundred bucks in a half hour in Detroit." 

I am starting to wonder about Detroit, and why it keeps coming up in a conversation I am having in Denver. It would make more sense if the topic were Minneapolis, but, it is not, so, as I listen to how incredibly scary Detroit is, I start to think of other cities in the mid-west which might be more suitable.

"There is a lot of violence in Detroit and some bad things happened in my immediate vicinity, so I decided that it was time to leave. In the eight years that I lived there, I saw so many crazy things that when I got here, I expected people to behave the way they did in Detroit. There were multiple times I almost got into fights with people because I thought that they were threatening me. This is a common thing for people who move away from there, and it took a period of time to get over it, but I did."

I ask him about the craziest things he has seen on his corner, and expect tales of woe and pain, maybe because I am conditioned to expect to hear more about Detroit, but, surprisingly, I hear stories of playfulness and abandon.

A rainy day on the 16th street Mall.
"One of the craziest things here is the Zombie Walk. The last one, there had to have been like 5 or 6 thousand people, all in zombie gear, walking and behaving like zombies. There was a zombie marching band. I was busking the whole time, and it looked like the apocalypse coming down the street. That's pretty great. There's also a giant pillow fight that happens down here. At the four-way walks, every time it comes on, everybody runs out, all in costumes, some people are swinging double pillows, some people are swinging over-sized pillows, it is just silly. The whole street is covered in feathers. It is pretty cool. Both of those events happen around Halloween."

Aside from having to deal with Detroit PTSD, Tovio used to be a web designer. Unfortunately, he has not been able to find work in that field for several years. He has chosen to busk instead of distracting himself in a service industry job in a bad environment among people who hate their work. He is also trying to decide whether or not he is going to stay in Denver.

"I have the option of going to multiple places because of the connections that I have. My philosophy is that you shouldn't leave a place until you're in a position of power, and that it's a choice, not an escape, where you feel like a place has squeezed everything out of you. I have only left cities like that in the past. I don't want to do that here. I would like to feel really connected to this place before and if I choose to leave." 

I ask him if he feels like he is a loner, as, up to this point, it sounds as if he has chosen situations in which he is always moving, always putting himself among people who he might not have any real connections with.

"I do sometimes feel like a loner. I have traveled really heavily, and I traveled a lot as a child, too, so it kind of became part of my wiring. It was just a few years ago that I realized I wanted to build a life and settle down. A lot of people grow up learning how to nurture communities and have done that by the time they are my age. (32) I am sort of learning how to do that now, trying to develop that. I am hesitant to leave without having done that here. The only place I ever had that was in Detroit, but it was destructive, tons of drugs and alcohol. It was hard to not be right in that there. People who are from Denver are very insular. It is not what I am used to. I am used to people being outgoing, and at the least being very interactive. Here, it's just not like that. People don't really interact. They are nice, they are polite, but friendship really doesn't develop. Everybody's got enough friends."

At a certain point I turn off the recorder and Tovio and I talk for a bit longer. He tells me about touring the U.S. in a circus doing rope walking and juggling, and co-founding a circus in Eastern Europe and touring there for a while too. He tells me the reason he had to stop was all the drinking involved. He couldn't not drink and stay there.

After I leave, I walk down the 16th street mall towards the Capitol Building. I think of all the places I have left, all the reasons I have ever had for leaving and I think of the environments we choose to be in and what we give up in choosing them. I think that PTSD is a good way to describe the behaviors we no longer want to exhibit, behaviors the served us in one environment but are completely useless or detrimental in another. It makes me wonder how much control we really have over our lives. When our mind decides it is time to change, how long does it take for our body to follow?


  1. I really enjoyed reading that article. I do street performance as well, and am getting ready to go to Denver, and it gives me an idea of what to expect. Who knows, maybe I'll run in to Tuvio and tell him that he's famous.

    1. I hope you do. He is a great person and made this piece much better because of his amazing perspective. Good luck, buddy!