Every week for the past 18 years, Cecil Myrie has been playing his banjo on a Broadway bench in Saratoga Springs. His presence has become so well-known that most other street performers know not to take his spot.
On a recent summer night, a young couple with an infant in a stroller veer in closer to hear Myrie play. Much to their delight, the busker plays a rendition of the nursery rhyme “I Love You, You Love Me.” Before the couple and child continue down the sidewalk, Myrie reaches down into his case and hands the mother two dollars. He tells her to buy something nice for the kid.
Sights like these are common in the summertime on Broadway, Saratoga’s main drag, but after Neil Dupree, otherwise known as Cozmo the Magician, was ticketed in Congress Park earlier this summer, some of Myrie’s colleagues are a little worried for the future of their craft as city officials appear to be reexamining street performance laws. A story featured in The Saratogian on June 29 reported the occurrence.
According to the assistant city attorney Tony Izzo, Dupree was ticketed for entertaining without a permit. However, street performers have been performing around the city for years and usually don’t get ticketed for performing without a permit.
“I’ve been here for almost 27 years and don’t recall ever having to prosecute anyone under this ordinance,” says Izzo. “The ordinance, for which this last ticket was issued, is very old.”
The law Izzo is referring to is city ordinance 109, which was written in the early 1900s. The language it uses has been described by many as outdated, referring to “moving pictures” at one point, which might suggest the ordinance was meant to target street-corner nickelodeons. The ordinance requires performers to either pay $5 per day or $100 per year for a permit. Furthermore, Dupree was told by the accounts department that the city had no permit form for him to fill out, let alone any license to give him.
“In Mr. Dupree’s case, we found it was impossible for him to obtain a license. We dismissed [his case] in the interest of justice,” says Izzo. Since the incident with Dupree, Izzo has been asked by the city to review the laws. Technically speaking, Saratoga police were enforcing the law as written. “They did what they were obligated to do,” says Izzo. Yet the culture of sidewalk busking in Saratoga has been allowed to grow up around the summer track season largely without the encumbrance of city involvement. Instead, the many performers who open their instrument cases to perform for pocket change have developed an unwritten social code based on common sense and mutual respect.
Cecil Myrie has never been ticketed.
“I’m here all the time,” says Myrie. “Not if it cool. If it cool—me gone.”
Myrie sometimes encounters other musicians playing in his spot, though it usually isn’t a problem.
“Sometimes they say, we’re keeping the seat for you,” says Myrie.
However, Myrie says, sometimes other musicians do take his spot, and when they do he just sits on his bass and plays along right next to them. “Sometimes they leave, sometimes they don’t,” he says.
Myrie’s “bass” is homemade. It slightly resembles a guitar amplifier in shape. On the side are tiny metal prongs that the Jamaican musician is able to pluck and get a bass sound out of. He says he doesn’t know which notes they are, but instead relies on his ear.
Another busker, named Jeremy Brewer, who frequents the tunnel next to the Adirondack Trust bank, says that people are usually supportive of street musicians—with a few exceptions.
“Occasionally you get the guy that says, ‘Knock it off, you suck.’” Brewer says. “But usually you don’t get that. It’s not for everybody.”
Compared to some of the other musicians who frequently play on Broadway, Brewer, who is also a resident of Saratoga, is newer to the scene.
“I started doing this last year,” says Brewer. “I wasn’t all that good though.” He spent the past winter honing his drumming skills. On the street, he doesn’t play on a real drum set, though, instead using old buckets from local restaurants. He says real drums are too loud. And he doesn’t need to use real drums to be heard, so long as he gets his preferred spot under the tunnel.
“[The tunnel] is an amplifier, kind of. It acts like an amp without being an amp,” says Brewer. Standing under the tunnel, one quickly gains an appreciation for what Brewer is saying. The acoustics enrich the sound, but it’s not too loud as to disturb the employees of the bank.
Brewer claims that last year a couple of employees from the bank gave him 15 pairs of new drums sticks. “I thought they were going to yell at me,” he says. Since then, he’s gone through seven of the drumsticks.
Volume control is an issue that street performers have to closely monitor every time they perform. It is against city law to use amplifiers, and Brewer recounts an incident a few weeks ago where he witnessed police kicking out a few kids who brought their guitars and plugged their amplifiers into the city power source.
“You can’t make any noise any reasonable person on the street couldn’t tolerate,” said Izzo. “If the noise is so overwhelming you can’t hear ordinary street sounds, such as sirens, that would probably result in you being asked to tone it down.”
There is one other issue performers observe so as not to attract police attention: obstructing traffic.
According to Luke McNamee, a Saratoga resident who is the bandleader of Blue Hand Luke and plays saxophone in the street, standing in the way of foot traffic will bring the attention of police.
“You find your own place; you don’t crouch in on other people,” says McNamee. “You don’t want to block traffic, because then Johnny Law comes in.”
In addition, many street performers say they don’t want a large crowd around them anyway. “I don’t want a lot of people gathering around,” says McNamee. “It’s a one-on-one type of thing.”
McNamee is something of a veteran when it comes to busking, as he has been performing for people in the streets since spring 1972, when he started playing around the Quincy Market area of Boston. He has also performed in Europe.
“To a lot of the guys, this is probably making a living. To me it’s a passion,” he says. “There’s something about just getting out here one-on-one and playing for the people.”
According to McNamee, another problem buskers need to worry about as the track season hits full swing is dealing with intoxicated pedestrians. He says that in the past, drunk patrons have tried to rob him of his earnings. He has had to stick his leg in his saxophone case in order to prevent them from taking his money.
Potentially, that could be a lot, too. According to Myrie, on a good night he can make around $50 to $60. But every night could be different as far as money is concerned.
“Any night can be bad,” says Myrie.
“It depends upon the town,” says Eric Matson, who also performs with a banjo. “The busier the sidewalk, the more cash flow.” Matson usually performs covers. He says that’s what people mostly want to hear.
“It’s usually, like, the 6-year-old child that makes bank,” Matson says. “Cute goes a long way.”
During this interview, the spot where Matson usually performs is taken by a child performer. For many street performers, protecting their usual spot can be a cause of frustration and, with the exception of Myrie’s bench, first-come first-served is the rule of thumb.
Although many of the street performers who busk the streets of Saratoga have been doing so for a long time, Broadway is always open to newcomers. A couple of Saratoga High School students named Tyler Bennet, 16, and his friend Mike Nagler, 17, sometimes play music together in the empty lot between Putnam Market and Homessence.
Although Bennett is new to the scene, he observes that musicians are a unique part of the Saratoga atmosphere and that buskers have an unwritten obligation to be nice.
“There’s a lot of buskers in Saratoga,” says Bennett. “I always am enjoying myself.”