80 F

Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Stay Tuned: Watch & Learn

Viewing the world through the lens of street performance is a spectacular thing. It gives you the unique opportunity to completely submerge yourself in a culture, while paradoxically remaining on the outside of it — a participant, and yet an unbiased observer. This is especially true when playing in a new place.

At 16, my musical partner Betty and I had grown somewhat bored of the music scene behind the local café. We decided it was high time to be a little more adventurous.

The Gaslamp District of San Diego is a wonderful place to play music at night. Not because the audience is particularly interested or even aware of your presence, but because you have an excuse to sit and observe a phenomenon that to the innocent 16-year-old is perfectly whimsical. We had arrived at the time when drunk people in their brightest colors wander around in a sort of frantic stupor, always yelling for something or someone they have misplaced. That is to say, we arrived at night.

We found a spot that was strategically isolated enough to avoid getting run over by cars and people while also far enough from trash cans to prevent getting puked on. We got out our guitars and began to play, with our inhibitions cast aside and the inhibitions of our audience non-existent due to intoxication.

The first half of the night was one of observation. Our vantage point was spectacular as we unabashedly inspected the packs of heel-clad hyenas that clicked passed us.

I had been playing on the streets for years so I hardly felt the familiar pang of nervousness that night, though admittedly there were moments I felt weakly panicked as those who noticed us glared bleary-eyed as if they could smell our sobriety (we could certainly smell their lack thereof).

It was unnerving being the only sober ones for miles — like being the oldest kids at a birthday party. All around us shrill-voiced men and women swarmed out of one bar and into the next, their hair gelled into pincushions and eye shadow up to their foreheads.

We had already seen some strange sights that night, but none quite matched the oddity of the man who introduced himself as “The Alias.” He was in his mid-to-late thirties, a self-proclaimed poker champion and told of his many enlightening experiences in between swigs from the flask he kept in his pocket. There was no guarantee that anything he said was true, and Betty and I exchanged furtive glances at some of the more outrageous stories, but we were captivated all the same.

“See these scars?” Betty and I examined his knuckles to see patches of white calloused-looking skin.

“All from my fighting days.” We were intrigued.

“Could you still take someone down if they came at you now?”

“Sure!” he told us proudly. “I’ll teach you some basic moves!”

This was not an opportunity we were about to turn down. We spent the next hour training as the crowds began to thin out, until we were the loudest ones left on the street.

“Running stance! Shotgun! Your windows are open! Guard your face! Low center!”

He took slow swings at us and we blocked and ducked feeling like superheroes the whole time. Eventually he left with his friends who appeared to have been looking for him. He said thanks for the music and we said thanks for the lessons and we parted.

“Ron Stewart!” he called out as we departed.


“It’s my name!” It was as if Batman had revealed his identity.

We drove home that night, our legs sore and our minds buzzing with all the surreality of the last few hours.

Street musicianship is about give and take. Take a risk, go where no street performer has ever gone before. Give the world a piece of your music, a piece of yourself, and you will be rewarded with strange sights, extraordinary adventure and Ryu-level street fighting skills.

For lessons in mediocre street fighting contact ELLY OLTERSDORF at eroltersdorf@ucdavis.edu.



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