A message to the teens who swiped the tip box of street cellist Aijee Evans earlier this month:
Maybe you thought it’d be funny.
A thrill, to see if you could get away with it.
But you need to know that you robbed a talented musician of more than just her hard-earned cash.
The 24-year-old may be regaining her sense of comfort on the street and her faith in the people she’s come to rely on, but you should know your damage was hardly fleeting.
It had been a good night around Fourth and South Streets on Nov. 8. A steady stream of passersby stopped to listen, and generously tossed money into the black collapsible box she sets out every time she sings and plays the cello.
Evans, who began street performing as a ninth grader at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, makes her living playing at weddings, prom send-offs, concerts, and other events. Her music has taken her from Philadelphia to Florence, Italy, where in 2015 she played to a huge, summer-night audience on an outdoor stage.
But Evans always comes home, infusing Philly streets with the kind of sounds that help define the city, that soften its edges for locals and tourists alike.
She’s interacted with people of all ages, all backgrounds. She’s rarely felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Maybe she was just lucky, or a little naïve. But it’s a big part of what she loves about being a street performer — the serendipitous connections, the shared joy of music.
She had seen the five or six of you earlier that night on South Street. So when you stopped in front of her to seemingly listen, she did what she always does: She smiled and kept playing, hoping you connected with the cello the way she did when she was about your age.
But then a couple of you grabbed her box, and you all ran off. For a few moments she stayed seated, frozen by your brazenness. She wondered if it was just an adolescent prank. But when she looked down the empty street, she knew it wasn’t.
She called 911. And then, a few minutes later, she called again.
She decided not to wait for police, and packed up her stuff to see if she could find you herself. She hoped to recover at least $100, enough for her week’s groceries.
A few minutes later and not that far away, she saw the group again. The two who had stolen the money took off, but a few of you stayed behind to try to explain. You said you had no idea anyone was going to take her money, and apologized.
Evans talked longest to the 13-year-old boy among you who seemed most contrite. And then she did something I’m not sure I would have believed if I hadn’t talked to the boy’s mother.
Evans offered the teen a ride home to West Philadelphia.
Yeah, I wasn’t so sure about the wisdom in that move, either. But, Evans explained: “I wanted something positive to come out of this.”
She could have called the cops again. She could have pressed for information about the ones who stole from her.
Instead, she talked about what she does, and why. How she communicates through music.
She counseled the boy to find new friends. As did the 13-year-old’s mother, who told me she punished him to make sure he knew it wasn’t a suggestion.
A few days later, Evans even hired him to help out at a wedding. Soon she’s hoping to talk to the principal of the charter school she believes most of the teens attend.
And although she’s back busking after taking a little time off, you should know that something has changed.
She’s guarded, fearful. She’s looking over her shoulder now, suspicious of people in a way she’s never been.
“It makes me feel like this one thing that I felt has always been my escape, now it’s a project, now it’s work,” she said. “I don’t feel as free. I don’t feel how I used to feel. I don’t feel the same happiness. I have never ever felt that. It doesn’t feel the same.”
She hates feeling this way. We should all hate that she feels this way.
About a week after she was robbed, Evans was back out around Ninth and Market, where a small crowd gathered. Among them, a mother and her toddler who was instantly smitten with Evans and her music. No matter how hard his mother tried to keep him at a distance, the little boy inched closer and closer, joyfully clapping at the end of each song.
Prema Katari Gupta, an urban planner, was in a rush to catch her train that afternoon. But she stopped long enough to capture the moment and later posted a few photos on Twitter.
Evans thanked her. (And after sharing that she was robbed, people rushed to her Venmo with donations and messages of support.)
Moments like those remind Evans why she plays, and what she hopes will one day help ease her fears.
The fears you teens caused.
You did this, and you need to make it right.