When a fellow student at Open Studio commented that I could stop by her place in Albuquerque on my way to the Midwest on the Southwest Chief, I phoned 1-800-USA-RAIL and changed my reservation to allow a 24-hour stopover at her place (Amtrak phone agents are extremely helpful and can help if you’re having trouble with the a more complicated booking).

We arrived an hour early into Albuquerque, around 10 AM, and Ginny soon rolled up to the picturesque Southwestern-style train station to pick me up. We had never met in person before, but immediately began chatting as if we’d known each other for years. She asked if I’d like to go busking then, or to her house first. I mentioned that people on the train had suggested Old Town or maybe the university as places to busk. We drove through the adorable Old Town, with its Navajo jewelry sellers and antique shops (and Breaking Bad store, where I later bought souvenirs for my teenage son). It looked promising, but she said also she knew of a nice restaurant on the way to her house, where busking might also be an option.

A few minutes later, we pulled into a tiny strip mall with an open gravel patio under elegantly branched trees. Fancy road cyclists sat and drank cappuccinos. I walked into the restaurant and asked a hipster server if they would mind if I set up outside, either on their patio or near it, and played music (explaining that I was busking across America by rail). A few minutes later, they came back with “no.”

Next door was a lovely book store stocked with thoughtful displays dedicated to artists,  novelists and journalists. I found the owners and asked them, both women, the same request. They said maybe, but they’d have to check with all the other shop owners on the strip. Fifteen minutes later, they came back with a firm “no.” Could I set up on the sidewalk? No, that wasn’t enough clearance. Try the last store in the strip. Ginny and I walked down there and when we asked the woman behind the counter if she minded if I set up my keyboard outside on the sidewalk and played, she looked shocked. “I’m not the owner. I can’t give permission for that,” she said, surrounded by pricy bohemian clothing made by local artisans.

So, Ginny and I left. “I’m never eating or shopping there again,” Ginny said. I laughed. “It’s ironic that these stores claim to support artists, but when an artist comes along they don’t want  to let them play,” I said. But hey, they didn’t know me — maybe they worried I’d sound terrible. And anyway, I’ve never really wanted to ask permission for busking, because that to me sounds too much like giving a merchant a free gig. By the way, the first amendment guarantees the right to busk, and numerous court cases have tested the law.

We rolled into Ginny’s lovely property and she showed me around her quintessentially Southwestern house and casita. I played her grand piano for awhile. As I played, I felt the phantom sway of the train, a lovely sensation similar to the sea legs I used to get after living for weeks on my dad’s sailboat. I’d been on the train for 24 hours, after all! We decided to go back to Old Town for busking.

I found a place right in the central park square in front of an elevated bandstand. It was easy for me to pop out of her car with my gear while she found parking. In less than 10 minutes, I was all set up and playing. Ginny showed up and gave me an audience, along with a few other folks in the park. She also took video of me.

I ended up playing for almost two hours, and making $54 dollars. I sold two CDs, and traded contact information with a local booker who came up to talk. A friend of Ginny’s happened to stop by and they visited together as well. “May the angels bless you as you travel the country,” a man said, dropping $20 into my keyboard case. By then, a busking guitarist nearby had begun to play (and he was great), so I ceded the plaza to him and his two dogs.

I packed up, passing two more buskers on the way to Ginny’s car. Later, I treated her to dinner. 

That evening, Ginny asked me to sing two beautiful songs she had written for her granddaughters. I was impressed by the artistry of her melodies, and hope to record vocals for them for her soon! She told me wonderful stories about her solo travels in Europe as a brave young woman with a guitar, working for years playing what she called “fake jazz” in a piano bar, and now playing and singing with a local klezmer group.

In the morning, after a blessedly horizontal sleep in the casita, I took a short 1.5 mile jog, showered, packed, and we drove back to the station. I gave Ginny a hug and boarded the Southwest Chief again, heading farther East towards Kansas City.