Street Wars: Letting Everyone Win
As a veteran street performer, I have been in many situations where life and death hung in the balance and I was the only authority available. When you are street performing and have a large crowd around you, two things happen: a crowd builds a crowd and people seeking attention will gravitate to that. A wall forms as your audience grows and, in New York City's Washington Square Park, it can become 20 ft. deep. Police and other authorities are blocked from seeing exactly what is going on in this "little" world and this makes it the perfect place to see how different methods of conflict resolution play out.
Many of the people I encountered in these settings were mentally ill, on drugs, or both. Those that weren't had a seemingly urgent need to be involved in what was happening in my world.
In one situation, I had a large crowd and the show was going great. Out of nowhere, a giant black plastic trash bag launched over the crowd like the Grinch loading out of Cindy Lou Who's house. Luckily, it missed me, but the crowd was on edge as a result. And that was a concern for me because the crowd was my client base and my goal in providing good customer service was to make them want to pay for my product—in this case, my show.
I heard a commotion from outside the crowd. As the crowd split apart, someone who looked like a mix of Mary Poppins and Jack Sparrow, wearing a healthy dose of urine and filth that comes only from the sad combination of mental illness and homelessness, made her way into the center of my circle. She glanced at me, then immediately headed toward the steel grate in the street. This was my second show, and my finale included juggling a knife, torch and large apple on a six-ft. tall unicycle, during which I would eat the apple. Apparently, the previous show's apple ended up wedged in the slots of the street grate. She was hungry and smartly knew right where it was. Once I figured out what she wanted, all I had to do was stay out of her way. So, I simply stepped aside, let her grab her food, and conflict was avoided.
Back to customer service: what could I say at this point to this woman that would not be mean and that would put my audience at ease? "Mom! You promised me you wouldn't bother me at work," I said, and got a huge laugh from the crowd (relieving the already palpable stress they were feeling) and successfully diffused the situation.
Friends of mine have been stabbed over control of certain spots that other people considered to be theirs. The late street performing legend Tony Vera was stabbed over a street disagreement in New York City (although he did not die from the stabbing).
When someone would go to "war" with me over a spot, it was often over money. They saw me doing well in a certain area and figured if they got it first, I would pay them off to move. I often would, but paying them would just reinforce that behavior and, week after week, I would have to do it again. I found it to be a better strategy to talk to them and sincerely try to become their friend. After all, we were both working on the streets, and they were simply observing what was working for me and trying to improve their own situations.
I remember a saxophone player who grabbed my spot and tried to blackmail me for it. I passed and moved down the way to a less desirable spot, but still made way more than he did. He would drive into the park in his stretch Cadillac, get out of the car, walk to the trunk, take out a wheelchair and saxophone and spend the day performing while pretending to be paralyzed. Wow, I thought. That is a sad way to make a living.
What did I learn from all this?
Be honest. Be sincere. Listen. Compromise. Then maybe you can make a few shekels, not get stabbed and have everyone feel like they won.
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