Street performers and swindlers

9 Jul

I’m wondering what he’ll do next, but I can hardly hear his narration. Muffled by the wind and the crowd, it comes to me in snatches. He wears puffy pants with a sword tucked into them, and he’s about 20 feet in the air, balancing on four poles people in the audience hold support from the ground. He’s a street performer, a charmer, a worker of crowds. People on either side of me hold camera up toward him, and click. He’s pulling something out of his hat, a shiny pink handkerchief. “And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what I do for a living!” He throws his hat to the ground, for money, before sliding down the center pole to the ground, where he suddenly looks not just a tiny bit smaller but much, much smaller. Pathetic, even. I feel sorry for him. He’s like a one-man circus show. I wonder where else he performs, other than Toronto, Canada. I imagine he hops from one big city to another, finding in each the biggest open space in the most crowded part of the city, where he sets up his poles, his microphone, and everything else he needs to make enough bucks to live on, to buy food, transportation and a roof over his head. But how does one become a street performer? It doesn’t seem like something one would aspire to when young. It seems, rather, the kind of profession you slip and slide toward, unwilling, out of desperation. I reach into my bag, rummaging through it to find my wallet. I pull out three crisp $1 bills, make my way through the thicket of people and drop them into the hat. Just as I do, he says, “Now, here’s a young lady with a heart! Let’s show some love!” Clapping erupts, and I duck once again out of sight, melting into the crowd. For just a fraction of a second, just as I dropped those bills, his eyes met mine, and behind the uproarious clapping and the bellowing voice and the great big charade, I saw genuine thanks.

We continue walking, and there’s another street performer far less interesting, a tin man. He moves very slow and is covered in silver paint. People snap pictures, some right next to him. It’s him that reminds of me of Chicago, the other big city where I saw street performers charming crowds on every intersection where the expensive stores were. It also reminds me of the man I saw in Paris, in the art district, performing like a wind-up toy that played music. It was dusk; he was on cobblestones; and it seemed like something not quite life-like, as if, in those twilight moments, he really were a wind-up toy. The crowds clapped for him and stood around amazed, and it seemed he could have been a six foot toy. It was possible then. In Paris, what I remember more vividly than the Eiffel Tower—which I climbed at sunset—is that everyone there would like your money, and they are extraordinarily creative in getting it. In Paris, preying on tourists is an art form. African men who barely spoke English came to me asking, “Would you like a bracelet?” “Would you like a bracelet?” with such earnestness, that a couple of the girls in my group agreed. The men hurriedly took colorful string out of their pockets and began braiding them around their wrists, working quickly, finishing in a few minutes. Afterwards, with big grins on their faces, they’d say, “Two euro, yes?” The girls, feeling perplexed and guilty now, not having known that the “bracelet” came at a price—it all happened so fast, after all—that they’d fish into the bags and produce the desired cash, whereupon the previously attentive men would snatch it up and move to the next batch of tourists, which were everywhere.

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