On multiple occasions, cops have told her to leave or be ticketed. Busking isn’t allowed in the Gaslamp, though the rule is routinely ignored. Evenings, you can find street performers on most corners. Buskers can be territorial about their spots. Shoe-Shine, for instance, isn’t always cool with Jan’s presence.
“Last year was the first time I met him. I had 15 to 30 minutes left before I was going home. He was freaking out and said, ‘This is my spot, you need to leave.’
“I said, ‘Excuse me, none of us is paying to be here. I’m going to finish my job. I only have 15 minutes left.’ He called me a bitch. ‘Do you know who the fuck I am?’ he said. ‘Get the hell out of here!’ I just ignored him.”
During the exchange, Jan recalled, a nearby graffiti artist had defended her, calmly telling the other guy to back off. “The shoe-shiner pulled out a big blade and threatened to stab both of us. I packed up my stuff. He was drunk. When he’s drunk, he gets angry.” When the artist stepped in front of Jan to shield her, the shoe-shiner put his knife against the artist’s stomach. They yelled at each other.
Jan went into a nearby Subway. “I saw two cops and told them what had happened. They said, ‘Wait, wait, where was this?’ I said, ‘Fifth and G,’ and they said, ‘Oh, that’s not our jurisdiction. We only take care of the Metrolink.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was, like, Are you effing kidding me? After that I called 911. I don’t know if they came. I left.”
Despite that exchange, Jan returns every weekend and sets up next to Shoe-Shine, whose name she has yet to learn.
Over the summer, she played her cello during Comic-Con. She wore her normal jeans and T-shirt. The street performer with the Shake Weight and wrestler’s mask dressed up that week as Captain America.
“He was jumping into trees and swinging around. People thought it was an act for Comic-Con, and I was, like, ‘He’s crazy. He’s not just doing it for Comic-Con. He does this all the time.’
“Comic-Con was a good week for me. I made $650 in three days.”
Over Jan’s four-year busking career, she has made three big tips. In downtown La Jolla, a guy watched her play for an hour and a half. Jan was so creeped out, she packed up 20 minutes early.
“I got really weird vibes from him. While I was packing up, he came over to me and said, ‘I really enjoyed your music.’ He handed me a hundred-dollar bill!”
Another night in the Gaslamp, a guy out with a group of friends approached Jan and told her he would give her a tip if she could name her school’s mascot. “I said, ‘Go Tritons!’ and he handed me a hundred bucks.”
Not long after that night, a drunken man out with his girlfriend approached Jan. He also handed over $100.
“I’m not sure if he meant to give me that much. His girlfriend definitely wasn’t happy. He gave me a hug and told me he thought what I was doing was great.”
In June, Jan will graduate from UCSD with a Bachelor of Arts in linguistics and music. She will give up performing in the Gaslamp.
“I plan on traveling for four or five years. I’m going to South America first because I want to learn Spanish. I’m teaching English in Mexico. I plan to street perform while I’m there, but I doubt I’ll make money. It’s a really poor country.”
Three blocks away, 27-year-old Charlie Rae sings and plays her guitar in front of the Sam Goody outside Horton Plaza. I can hear her from a block’s distance: she sounds like a mix of Ray LaMontagne and Ani DiFranco.
A young couple walking in front of me speeds up.
“We have to stop and listen,” the guy says to his girlfriend. “I heard this girl down here a few weeks ago. She’s really good.”
More than 20 people gather in front of Charlie. Many take video recordings with their phones. A homeless man on a bench scolds someone for obstructing his view. A woman in a black leather jacket with shopping bags at her feet listens with a hand placed over her heart.
A guy dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt (he has a rolling backpack with him) sprawls on the ground in front of Charlie. Though she tries to ignore his bizarre behavior, an amused smile slips across her face. He disappears during the next song, only to return with a single white rose and what appears to be a teriyaki bowl from a takeout diner. He drops his gifts at Charlie’s feet and bows. Charlie remains unfazed.
Her girlfriend, Lauren, works the crowd, selling CDs.
“Charlie Rae recorded this in our apartment. It’s super professional,” Lauren tells me.
Charlie taught herself the guitar at 17. Before that, she played the piano; she took lessons for a year when she was 5. At 6, she was writing symphonies.
“My parents aren’t supportive of my music,” she says. “They’ve only come to maybe three of my shows. They told me music was a waste of time. After hearing the first song I ever wrote, my dad said, ‘Follow your checkbook, not your heart.’ They’re very type A. They didn’t know what to do with me. I moved out at 17 and did my own thing. I don’t talk to them anymore.”
As a kid, Charlie would secretly listen to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, musicians her parents disapproved of. She tried to copy all their notes.
“My parents took my boom box away from me because they didn’t want me listening to the radio. It wasn’t an easy childhood. I think it made me a better musician.”
On the street, a large black man whose neck is as thick as my waist stands a few feet from Charlie.