The life of a busker isn’t glamorous, but it can be profitable. Just ask Chuck Taormina.
Better known as One Leg Chuck because, well, he only has one leg, the Sacramento resident typically sings and plays guitar in San Francisco, where he is licensed to perform up to 22 days a month.
Every week, he’ll haul instruments down to the Port of San Francisco in an increasingly unreliable van that, at least for three nights a week, doubles as his apartment.
It’s grueling life.
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But this month, after Mayor Darrell Steinberg banged on a bucket alongside a group of street performers in an effort to encourage more busking in the city, One Leg Chuck decided to do something different.
“Took a chance and did some busking today in Sacramento getting the kinks worked out! This is what two hours looks like,” Taormina wrote on Facebook, next to photo of a bucket full of money. “I know all days will not be like this but if ya don't get out there your bucket will be empty!”
He made $140 – more than he makes in San Francisco some days, and without fighting traffic to drive there, paying to park or sleeping in his van.
“I posted that picture to get out and go busk,” Taormina told me. “I want them to know there’s money available.”
For Sacramento, that’s saying something.
Long known as a slow-moving, uncool government town, the capital city’s shift to a free-flowing, hip city has been rocky. Youthful creativity often gets strangled by red tape, and so art projects die before they’re ever really born.
There have been some notable exceptions, of course. Among them, the dozens of new murals painted on buildings around midtown, and Beacon, the exhibit in a long-abandoned building on K Street. Not to mention the gritty, but wildly successful Art Hotel and Art Street exhibits.
Sacramento needs more of these projects, ideally from a diverse group of artists. Just like Sacramento needs more buskers to enliven what too often are empty streets.
To do that, Steinberg is taking the critical and long-overdue step of making the city do a better job of supporting the arts. He made a show of giving buskers his blessing at an event on R Street earlier this month.
He also touted the $500,000 the city is giving the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission over the next two years to improve arts education in schools. Another $500,000 will fund Creative Economy Pilot Project grants for art, food and tech projects.
“I think we should re-stimulate and encourage the art of busking in Sacramento,” Steinberg said. “It is a protected First Amendment right to speak, to perform, to demonstrate and to share.”
It might come as a surprise, even to street performers, that busking itself is not banned by city law. Instead, there’s a patchwork of noise and nuisance rules that give police enormous leeway to discourage the practice.
The city is considering changing those ordinances in parts of downtown and midtown.
One Leg Chuck remembers a time when he could busk without being harassed in Old Sacramento and along K Street. A long time ago, the city required performers to fill out a form. But somewhere along the way, that went away and so did the ability for buskers to pull in big bucks.
That needs to change. The city will be better for it.
“I want to busk in Sac because I don’t want to drive,” Taormina said. “I believe I can make money just like everybody else.”