Jan Eli plays her cello on the sidewalk in the Gaslamp
The Yes Team talks about busking and ends with a song
It’s a Friday night at 9:00 in the Gaslamp, and the streets are filled with club-goers. I walk past a street performer on Fifth Avenue. The busker is shirtless and wears a wrestling mask, and he’s pumping a Shake Weight in one of his oversized arms. He poses for a picture with a group of young women. “What a freak,” one of them says with a laugh.
One block over, in front of the Reading Cinemas at the corner of Fifth and G, Jan Eli sits on a metal folding chair, playing her cello. Her posture is perfect. She holds a bow in her right hand, the neck of the cello in her left. At Jan’s feet sits a tip jar stuffed with dollar bills. A neon sign affixed to her music stand says: I have raised $18,500 for my UCSD tuition. Thank you for your support.
Jan wears brown oxford shoes, faded jeans, and a T-shirt. Her hair is pulled into a loose ponytail. Despite her casual dress, the cello gives her an air of classical elegance.
To Jan’s left, a man in a wrinkled pin-striped suit, a burgundy button-down shirt, and a fedora attempts to earn cash by shining shoes. He shouts at pedestrians to stop. On occasion, he curses at those who walk past without making eye contact.
When I stop to admire Jan’s music, the shoe-shiner is irate.
“What’s your problem?” he says. “Do you hate black men? You only like the sisters? Bitch!”
Jan rolls her eyes and lets out a sigh. She looks tired.
A tour bus pulls up, and the driver steps out. He says to Jan, “My passengers would like to know if you could come on the bus and play for them. Ten minutes for $10?”
She makes a face. “I’ll do ten minutes for $30.”
The driver chuckles. He climbs back onto the bus to haggle with his passengers on Jan’s behalf.
“Ten dollars!” she exclaims when he’s out of earshot. “I’ll make more on the street.”
The driver emerges for more haggling, but Jan won’t waver on her price. The bus drives away without leaving a tip.
Image by Howie Rosen
Jan Eli has raised over $18,500 for her UCSD tuition by busking.
For the next hour, I watch Jan perform. People pause to read her sign, and many drop money into the tip jar. Some offer words of encouragement. Others walk past without looking at her. A lanky frat boy slurs, “I saw you here last week. You’re amazing! Keep it up.”
Another man, a stocky guy with a ponytail, drops five dollars in the jar. “This is from me and him,” he says, motioning to his buddy. “I’m a musician, too. Never stop playing, sweetheart.”
A group of Hare Krishnas parade past with drums, chanting: “Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna.”
“I hope they don’t stop in front of me,” Jan says. “Sometimes they do. They usually ask first. It’s hard to get mad at them because they’re doing it for a good cause.”
The Krishnas move on.
A man in pleated dress pants listens as Jan plays “The Swan,” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the “Sarabande,” from Bach’s Suite No. 3. He stands at a distance. At first, I think he’s waiting for someone, but when he closes his eyes and sways along with the music, it’s evident that he’s sticking around to listen. He drops a ten in Jan’s jar.
Twenty-one-year-old Jan relocated to San Diego from Florida in the summer of 2009 to attend UCSD. She received a small academic scholarship, but still had $9000 of out-of-state tuition to contend with.
“When I first moved here, I had a few ideas on how I would make money. I thought about being a taxi driver or a bartender. But I couldn’t bartend because I was 18, and I wouldn’t make money as a taxi driver because I couldn’t make my own hours. When I was in middle school, my mom would take my sister and me in front of Walgreens [to play]. My sister played the violin, and I played cello. We did it to fund-raise for different trips we took. I thought I could make money doing that out here.”
Jan started playing cello in elementary school. On the first day of third grade, her teacher played all the instruments for the students. Jan fell in love with the sound of the cello and decided to give it a try. After the first year, she considered quitting.
“I thought it was too much pressure. My mom told me to try it for longer, so I continued. The next year I really progressed. I started really practicing. I got better.”
Pulling from the success she had as a child — she’d busked with signs that explained how she was using the money she raised — Jan decided to purchase vibrantly colored poster board and try street performance. On the sign, she wrote: “Help me pay for my UCSD college tuition.”
“Busking paid for my first two years of tuition at UCSD, which was $18,000. That covered school, food, and room and board. Now that my tuition is in-state, the university covers everything except room and board and my supplies. My busking has to cover that.”
When Jan first started out, she busked in downtown La Jolla on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 7:00–9:00 p.m. She made decent money. A year ago, she discovered her spot in the Gaslamp at Fifth and G. She makes more there. She works every weekend, Friday to Sunday, 7:00–9:00 p.m. If she really needs the money, she plays four-hour sets.
“I get anywhere from $50 to $100 an hour on a typical night. People think it’s insane that I make that much money. I don’t think other street musicians make as much. I think it’s because of my sign that explains why I do this.”
Jan has had her share of run-ins with interesting people while busking, including a few people so consumed with emotion over her playing that they cried.
“One night, a homeless guy started crying. I think he was on something, though.”