Lesson

First published in issue 3 of The Manual.

Before I settled into making websites, I was something of a drifter. I spent my early twenties busking and hitch-hiking my way around Europe. In retrospect, it was as if I were waiting for the web to be invented.

I eventually settled in the town of Freiburg in Germany’s Black Forest. There was still no sign of the web so I continued to earn money by playing music on the street. German society has a reputation for being efficiently well-structured and, true to form, there were even rules about which times of day were suitable for busking. I could play music on the street between 11am and noon, and between 4:30pm and 6pm. Playing outside those hours was verboten.

I sometimes bent the rules. Technically, I didn’t play on the street outside the officially-designated times, but I did play under the street in a pedestrian passageway that had particularly good acoustics. I think I could legitimately claim that I was just practicing and if any passers-by happened to throw money into my bouzouki case, well that was just a bonus.

There was just one problem with this underground passageway. It was quite close to the local police station and the occasional police officer would pass through on his way to work. There was one plainclothes policeman in particular who told me to stop playing the first time he walked past. When he caught me again, his warning was more stern. He recognised me. I recognised him. Even when I wasn’t playing music, we would see each other on the street and exchange glares. In my mind I filed him under the “nemesis” category.

One day I was walking into town to find a good spot to play (during the appointed hours, I might add) when it started to rain. I didn’t have much further to go but there was a tram stop right next to me and a tram was pulling up, headed in the right direction. “It’s only one or two stops,” I thought. “I might as well hop on.”

The tram system operated on a trust system. You could just get on a tram and it was up to you to make sure you had a valid ticket. This system was enforced with occasional inspections but they were very rare. I was taking my chances by riding the tram for two stops without a ticket but it didn’t seem like much of a gamble. This was the day that my luck ran out.

Two inspectors got on the tram and started checking tickets. When they came ‘round to me, I told them that I didn’t have a ticket. The punishment for schwarzfahren—riding without a ticket—was an on-the-spot fine of 60 deutschmarks (this was back in the days before the euro). I didn’t have 60 marks; I didn’t have any money at all. They asked to see my identification. I didn’t have any identification with me. They took me from the tram and marched me off to the police station.

One of the cops sat me down at his desk. He asked me for my details and pecked my answers into his typewriter. Once he had my name and my address, we got down to the tricky matter of figuring out what to do next. I told him to simply let me go so that I could play music on the street during the appointed hours. Once I had busked up 60 marks, I would go to the transport authority and pay my fine. He gruffly pointed out the flaw with that plan: because I had no ID with me, there was no way they could know for sure that I was who I said I was or that I lived where I said I lived. So if they let me go, there’s no incentive for me to pay the fine. I gave him my word. He didn’t accept it. We had reached an impasse.

At that moment, who should walk in to the police station but my plainclothes nemesis. “You!” he said as soon as he saw me. My heart sank. Now I was in real trouble.

“Oh, you know this guy?” asked the policeman at whose desk I was sitting. “He was riding the tram without a ticket and he doesn’t have money for the fine. He claims he’s going to make enough money to pay the fine by playing music on the street. Can you believe that?” he asked mockingly.

“Yes,” said the plainclothes cop. “He’s good. He’s got a really unique voice.”

I was flabbergasted! My sworn enemy was vouching for me! He looked at me, nodded, and continued on his way.

His word was good enough. They let me go with a slip of paper that I was to take to the transportation office when I paid my fine. I’m sure they thought that it was a lost cause but I went out busking that afternoon and the next morning until I had earned 60 marks. Then I went out to the transport authority—paying for my tram fare this time—and I gave them the money and the slip of paper from the police station. I kept my word.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s this: you should always give money to buskers.

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