When I was in college, I spent my junior year abroad in Sydney. It was a year of wonders, and of many firsts. It was a year of saying yes to just about any invitation and opportunity that came my way. It was a year of traveling internationally alone, and meeting people along the way. Sure there was some studying that went on, but mostly I explored a country, played a lot of guitar, drank potent Australian beer and laughed an awful lot.

I held three different jobs while I was there. I worked as a cashier at Big W, which was the Australian equivalent of Walmart. I worked in an office for an environmental engineering firm. And then my last job there was in a boutique called Portmans, which offered poorly made clothing at high end prices.

In between school, working and traveling, I used to busk on the streets of Sydney. On a Friday or Saturday night I would take the bus from North Ryde, where I lived, across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and into the city. The bus let out at the Queen Victoria Building, and then I’d walk to the area of the city called The Rocks. It was a touristy spot, near the quay where the ferries docked. George street was lined with bars and shops and had an unobstructed view of the Sydney Opera House. Behind the coffee kiosk at Circular Quay was a stack of plastic milk crates, I’d grab one and keep walking, with my guitar in its cardboard box (as I never bothered to get it a case) tucked under my arm.

I crossed under the bridge and avoided Richard, who played there. Richard was pretty crazy, and kind of a jerk. I set up shop a few blocks away from Richard, the troll under the bridge, in front of a duty free with a large overhang that served to amplify my voice. I tuned my guitar, set up a hat, and started to play and sing. He tried to make friends with me later on. He even tried to kiss me once. When I said no he asked me if I was gay. As if that could be the only reason. His grubby teeth and body odor surely had nothing to do with my rejection.

“I’ve heard about you,” a voice barked at me. It was Richard. We had a few conversations that went like this before he tried to be my friend. “I have eyes and ears all over this city. You took my spot last weekend.” It’s true, I did take his spot last weekend. He wasn’t there. Why not, it was fair game. I didn’t like his spot because the bridge above was noisy.

“You weren’t there. I would gladly have moved,” I replied.

“My take is less when you're here," he complained. "I have eyes and ears all over this city…” he started again.

“Oh really? Looks like you have an asshole in the city too,” I spat back at him.

I started to sing and turned away from him. He stomped his feet and walked away. I sat on my crate, under my overhang. I watched Richard once. He stops the pedestrian traffic and literally won’t let people pass until they throw something in his hat. I opted for the less aggressive approach. Crowds built around me when I sang popular favorites like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” by U2. (I loved doing that one because later on I’d hear drunken people shout out the refrain “Hey hey… sha la la…” and I knew I stuck that ear worm there.”

Busking was a blast. I used to rake in somewhere between $30-80 a night. It was all in change, and the bank tellers hated seeing me coming in on Monday mornings with my giant bag of coins. Saturday nights were profitable, as drunk people would lob handfuls of change at me. Australia had dollar and 2 dollar coins, and it was pretty awesome when they’d lob $2 coins into my hat and not realize it. Someone threw in a key from their pocket once. I still have it. They totally got locked out of somewhere that night.

I was 20. I had purple hair. I wore large flannel shirts and ratty baggy jeans, as it was the 90s. I played songs I had written, and songs by Indigo Girls, U2, Suzanne Vega, Belly, etc. People brought me cups of tea, sandwiches, I’d gotten rides home. I struck up conversations with people walking by. A man gave me a rose once. My voice belted up the block, I have a loud singing voice. People would tell me they heard me from blocks away and had to find me.

Then my voice would grow hoarse. I’d check my watch. Pack my guitar in its box, put my crate back behind that coffee kiosk at Circular Quay, and make my way back up George Street to the Queen Victoria Building, just in time for the 3 AM bus to take me back across the Sydney Harbor Bridge to my home in North Ryde.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.