More stray thoughts

Gotta share my latest excellent adventure: street singing! I had done a little “busking” in London and Liverpool a dozen years ago—and in Los Angeles decades before that—and have been meaning to get back to it ever since. So for the last two weekends I’ve begun working the sidewalks of Back Bay, Boston.

It’s amazing how little the street scene has changed over the years: once again I was getting drowned out by Hare Krishnas, hectored by incoherent drunks, and shut down by cops. Yet it was still tremendous fun. And almost profitable. (Hell, what I earn in tips from playing music is only two decimal points different from what I earn from consulting to business.) And very instructive. It's a great way to practice “customer intimacy,” as mentioned in a previous post.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpeaking of which, I’ve written about my complaints with my bank before. But the frontline folks there are so polite and helpful I WANT to like the company—and I’ve refrained from publicly excoriating it. (I will say it’s one of only two US banks that recently flunked a “stress test” to determine which banks can withstand a financial crisis.) Clearly this institution has its operational problems—e.g., its MasterCard ATM cards didn’t work a few weeks ago and the bank neglected to notify its customers (oops), making it a tad inconvenient for us who couldn’t pay our restaurant bills, parking fees, or cab fares. (Am I being picky here?)

Of course I’m always happy to point out their flaws to them. (After using one of their ATM booths last year I told the branch manager that I’d seen cleaner bathrooms in punk rock clubs.) But their associates are unfailingly gracious so I continue to cut them some slack. (Even when they often give me inaccurate information, but it's senior management's responsibility to make sure the workforce is educated.) That personal, congenial touch does make a difference. I have felt the same way about many rock artists I’ve known. If they’re nice guys or gals I’ve wanted to like their music—and could usually find something to appreciate about it.

Another excellent adventure was attending my Boston College High School reunion three weeks ago, which rekindled a preoccupation of mine: noting the many choices we make early in life that seem inconsequential at the time but eventually change our entire career trajectory. (I’ve written about this before—here and here—when I’ve discussed “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” or “the butterfly effect,” whereby small differences in initial circumstances can generate dramatically different chains of events.) For instance, the C student with no career ambition in high school decides to pursue a business degree in college while he figures out what he wants to do with his life, but becomes a BFF with a well-connected frat bro who helps him get a plum job at a manufacturing company where he finally catches fire and rises to the top of the firm.

In my case, I decided to take an Ancient Greek class taught by an instructor with Robin-Williams-like intensity (Father John Howard S.J.) who got me to love Homeric Greek, which propelled me into a good college, where I later found myself in a precociously talented campus rock band, which launched me into the music business for the next dozen years, which gave me a unique perspective on business and art. The ideal background for a street singer.

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  1. At first I didn't follow the "customer intimacy" segue from busking to banking. Now I gotcha.

    I'm doing that to a poor client right now. Through a monumental confluence of drek I have hosed this poor client every way possible. Obviously I have no bad intent. I don't know how to do bad intent. But this project is the very picture of "Murphy was an optimist."

    I keep apologizing, scrambling, genuflecting and apologizing again. It's finally all coming together, but I think it's personality that's kept them from drifing 20 miles to shoot me. (Yeah, another great thing: second time in 20 years I have a client I might actually see on the street.)

    Maybe they bank at your bank and they're used to it.

  2. Only a year or two ago I was busking on the streets of Paris, with a
    clarinetist, by myself accompanied by a cheesy little portable synth. It is a thankless way to make a few euros, especially shlepping my bundle of equipment up and down those steep Metro stairs. Yes of course you are right about small decisions/events years ago making huge changes in one's life. I taught a few inner city kids my junior year at college and ended up spending 24 years as a teacher and school administrator. I started taking a lifelong habit of songwriting seriously senior year at college and spent 15 years on the road as a musician, and the last 7 also. Great thought provoking blog John!

  3. I know exactly what you mean about banks, John. Mine is the nation's largest, and they are terrible to their (small) customers, but at the counter, the "frontline" personnel are so friendly I want to gag. It's a real joke, like handing a steaming pile to someone who payed for prime rib, with a spit-eatin' grin on your face! I don't know how they sleep at night. Just glad my busking days are well behind me.

    1. Ed, you made the connection I didn't even see: playing for crumbs on the street as a singer and supplicating for decent service from my bank. I just got a note from the bank (three weeks after the fact) apologizing for the ATM card fiasco. (They assured me it was MasterCard's fault. I feel much better now!) But I can always call up the customer service reps who will assure me (after I spend 5 minutes getting to a real person) how important I am to the bank.

      I gotta write a confessional song now—kinda like Jackson Browne's "The Pretender." I'm "The Enabler."

  4. What a great song "The Pretender" is. Here's my stab at a re-write, with apologies to JB:

    I'm going to get myself a card
    From a bank on the High Street
    I'm going to use it to pay for my dinner
    And all those daily bills
    But when the credit check is done
    It’ll fail ‘cos their systems are all down
    And then it’s me that feels like I’ve done wrong
    And they’ll just go and do it again
    Do it again

    1. Not bad, Mark. When your corporate career is over you can join me on the street. Do you play an instrument?

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