Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to newstips@seattletimes.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”

Five weeks ago, Pike Place Market officials performed an act of tough love, and told the Market’s community of buskers to pack up and go home.

Their music may be their livelihood, and the very soundtrack of the Seattle landmark. But it also drew an audience. And that could draw disease.

“It’s not because we don’t love them, or we don’t want them here,” a Market security guard said recently as she stood on the market’s near-deserted main thoroughfare. “It’s because crowds gather.”

No busking and no crowds means no income — an average $100 or more per day for a musician during the cooler months, and twice that in the spring and summer.

Which is why Jeannie Rak has started the Busker Relief Fund — a lifeline for those whose inability to perform means an inability to make ends meet. (Donations call also be made by texting BUSKERFUND to 206-800-7879).

Carly Ann Calbero, left, and Jeannie Rak play Vance Joy’s “Riptide” to a near-empty Pike Place Market before talking about the launch of the Busker Relief Fund, which Rak has started to help fellow buskers. (Nicole Brodeur / The Seattle Times)

Rak, 27, has been busking for two years at Pike Place Market, and is partial to a spot at the base of the stairs next to Pike Place Fish known as “The Cave.” (“The acoustics …” she explained.) She has reverence for those who got their start by stepping onto one of the 13 designated busking spots, each marked with a red musical note: Brandi Carlile. The Head and the Heart.

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When Rak had to stop playing, she found work cooking four nights a week for a family in Seattle’s Central District. She lives with her wife in an apartment owned by her in-laws, so she doesn’t have to worry about being evicted. So the fund is not for her.

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It is, however, for people like her friend and fellow busker Carly Ann Calbero, 27, who depends on busking for about 8o% of her income. She is staying afloat by teaching online music lessons for the School of Rock — a job she secured just before buskers were asked to leave the Market for their own safety against the novel coronavirus.

Jeannie Rak gets an elbow bump from Franklin Salogga after Rak and Carly Ann Calbero’s rehearsal Tuesday. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Jeannie Rak gets an elbow bump from Franklin Salogga after Rak and Carly Ann Calbero’s rehearsal Tuesday. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Calbero, who has a degree in music theory from Edmonds Community College, moved to Seattle from Marysville specifically to busk in the Market. (She won’t be taking any of the relief funds).

“I was going where the music was, the consistency,” she said. “And the people. I miss seeing the other buskers around. Walking through the Market when it’s quiet is the strangest thing. The buzz that was here is gone.”

And so is the income stream, Rak said, which worries her.

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“The $1,200 from the government seems stupid,” she said. “It’s going to help people, but not enough. Not busking has left a gaping hole not just in the city, but in people’s incomes.”

Most of the fund’s initial donations have come from friends and family members, Rak said, but she is eager to expand the ask to anyone who has passed through the Market and liked what they heard, all over the place.

“It’s that raucousness,” she said of buskers, who pay $30 for an annual permit. “You create an energy.”

Carly Ann Calbero (left) and Jeannie Rak play Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” to a near-empty Pike Place Market before talking about the launch of the Busker Relief Fund. (Nicole Brodeur / The Seattle Times)

The Pike Place Market Foundation understands that. Last week, it announced $1.4 million in unrestricted grants and funds to support “partner social services agencies and communities initiatives,” including The Market Community Safety Net.

The Safety Net is an “evolution” of its Emergency Rent Fund and Farmer Relief Fund that was established last year, and has been expanded to include merchants, day-stall owners and buskers.

Designated busking spots at the Market are marked with a red musical note. The “2” tells how many buskers are allowed to perform there at the same time. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Designated busking spots at the Market are marked with a red musical note. The “2” tells how many buskers are allowed to perform there at the same time. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Mary Bacarella, the executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, said Rak’s fundraising effort reflects the spirit of the place and its people.

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“It is such a resilient community,” Bacarella said. “They look out for each other. This is the soul of the city and this reflects what we’re all doing in the city. Helping each other.”

Rak is still working out the details of how to distribute the funds; whether to have buskers apply, or whether to simply give an even amount to all who hold the permit to perform in the Market.

“People see you as spare change, and that’s not the case,” she said. “My guess is that people are hurting a lot.

“I owe everything in my career to busking. And I don’t want that to die.”

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