I still need to revise it some more according to my professor (he says I need to put more of myself in it as well as talk about the freaks part at the end throughout), but here is what I have so far. Tell me what you think:
Busking: The Stage on the Streets
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” – William Shakespeare
It’s four o’clock, beginning of the afternoon rush as hoards of tourists exit out to Piccadilly Circus from the station. I ride the dull escalator towards the exit. Ads for the Wam Bam Burlesque Club, Captain America and L.A. Noire movies, Mamma Mia, Fela and Shrek shows, exhibits of the National Portrait Gallery and Kate Middleton’s wedding dress at Buckingham palace, masked the walls as I went up. Wearing a purple shirt and dark blue jeans that were noticeably too large for me, its bottoms stuffed into my black ankle-length boots, I kind of wanted to hide. I might have been just paranoid; no one was really looking at me. I hoped and yet deep down knowing someone would notice.
Passing the Lilly White sports store, I pulled out my journal and walked in the direction of the large crowd. Some, either worn-out from earlier walks or fatigued from the heat of riders packed in the trains of the underground tube with no air conditioning, found any available spot and squeezed themselves in underneath the black Eros statue. Others continued to walk down the street amongst the aged, white stone Victorian buildings, taking pictures of the ostentatious architecture with carvings of Greek gods. I passed by these frozen tourist attractions unimpressed. They were like large versions of paperweights; their purpose was mostly to hold a space.
Instead I found myself viewing the Samsung advertisements on loop on the immense screens above. On it, I watched commercials for Coco Cola, Samsung electronics, Mcdonald’s, Lycamobile and even one for the support of the Japanese earthquake relief fund. That last one seemed so out of place. My skeptical mind already thought of some profit motive behind it.
Unable to get a seat on the staircase of the statue, I looked around at the five roads connected by Piccadilly Circus – Regents, Piccadilly, Glasshouse, Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry—and tried to decide where to go amongst the commotion. I quickly crossed the street to see a crowd gathering at the front of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. A medium-sized group of people stood around the main entrance and I absorbed myself into the slowly growing mass.
“Hey, come and watch me do a magic trick,” summoned the street performer as more of the street crowd drew in closer to him. They stepped in close enough to see the upcoming show, but made sure to stand outside of the chain that circled around him on the ground.
The crowds in the streets are merciless in a different way than a regular theatre audience for they do not pay a ticket to come and watch. They can come and go as they please, so it takes an over-the-top personality to pull them in. Wearing a black bowler hat and his lean, wiry body in black slacks and a red shirt with the Ripley’s logo on it, the performer managed to show his enthusiasm through his craggily, wrinkly face.
Looking around the audience, he said, “Who wants to help me? You two guys in the front want to join me in doing this.”
Two stout men were singled out as the rest of us in the audience tried to avoid the performer’s pointing finger. They shrugged their shoulders and said, “yeah, sure,” in a somewhat lackadaisical manner.
As they stepped beyond the circular chain barrier, the performer asked the first man, dressed in a green Fred Flintstone shirt that said “Who’s Your Daddy” and an obvious protruding beer gut, for his name.
“David,” he replied. He turned to the next man, who was slightly slimmer and dressed in a blue plaid shirt and jeans, and he replied, “Peter.”
“Okay mates, let’s begin,” he said as he stood on the black, rectangular-shaped platform. “Hello everyone, my name is Tony Roberts, from Australia. I will be attempting to put my entire body through this tennis racket.” He held up an old, dingy white tennis racket with the hoop lacking the mesh of strings.
Tony took the racket and put his left arm and head through the hoop. He jokingly remarked, “It’s a boy,” as he contorted his body through the hoop and began to put his right arm through it as well. The audience let out a few reluctant laughs.
He waved at David to grab his hand and pull it through. For a second, Tony dropped to his knees and joked again, “I’m not gonna ask you to marry me. Although you do have lovely eyes and soft hands for a man.” The audience laughed a little louder.
As David pulled his arm through, Tony commented, “Give him a hand. He’s just a member of the crowd like you.” In the corner, a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair woman gasped in amazement that he fitted himself through the hoop. In a teasing manner, he replied, “Covering your mouth doesn’t stop your eyes from seeing, my dear.”
The audience clapped as he pushed the tennis racket down against his chest. “Don’t clap any louder, you might encourage the Americans. Come closer, so you don’t block the sidewalk.” I let the comment pass over my head, too involved in watching the show before me.
He then proceeded in telling David and Peter to pick up the chains on the ground and they began to wrap them around his torso, neck, arms, hands and the tennis racket. In order to cross the chain around him, David and Peter get very close and Tony continues in his bawdy wit. “Is this like Friday nights at your house,” and went on with a few utterances of “ooh.”
“Here we have two Englishmen tying up an Australian.” A few more laughs came out of the audience. Some members of the audience fidgeted within their cramped spots. A man in a black shirt and sunglasses bumped his elbow into my journal and turned around just enough to see me writing. He gave a quick quizzical look before turning back around to continue watching the show.
Tony asked Peter to open a bottle of water next to the platform and to pour some into his mouth. Then he asked Peter to stand on the platform holding the bottle of water over his head. “In the spirit of the late, great Houdini, I will attempt to escape from these locks under water,” he joked. Some more chuckles come from the audience.
As Peter stepped down, Tony asked the audience to do a countdown with him at the end of two minutes. No one answers as if blindsided. He had broken further through the imaginary fourth wall between himself and us. The same fourth wall in the proscenium theatres in which audiences, trapped in their three-walled box seats, instantly separated themselves from the action on the stage. This audience wanted to be seen as one entity with no interaction at all with the man in front of them. But even the audience participates in the drama of the performance and Tony reaction made it clear to us.
“C’mon, you’re the only audience I got. When I ask a question, I expect a response,” he begged despairingly, “Don’t worry about any humiliation, that is my job.” He asked again for a countdown and the crowd responded finally with a slightly apathetic “yes.”
Tony began to wiggle and contort out on the chains, dislocating his fingers in order to pull his hands out. As he did this, he encouraged the audience to stay by yelling, “Five floors, 700 exhibits, after I pull myself free, please join me inside for a voucher to get discount ticket to Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
With less than 30 seconds to spare, he pulled his hands free from the chains and pushed the tennis racket down to his feet. “Okay, follow me in for a free voucher.” Most of the crowd fled as soon as he finished. A free show is better than even a discounted one.
Yet I followed him in there to see what it was like in the “odditorium.” On the speakers, I could hear Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop.” I giggled a little because the song choice appeared to be random. But this was Ripley’s; as its sign said, “Home of the Unbelievable.” As I picked up the black voucher with the white, orange and yellow logo of the exhibit and a picture of its entrance, I looked around to see a picture of a man with his eyeballs popping out of his socket. Turning to left, a screen showed an exhibition for Marilyn Monroe. Londoners seem to be in awe of her.
The generic tan wooden floors, the red, blue and green fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling, the reflective glass walls and the red carpets with the logo on them were off-putting despite the allure of the bizarre figures surrounding me. I could probably find most of them in a book or a Google search later on anyway.
I walked back outside, looking at the facade of the building, the London Pavilion, a former music hall and theatre, which was now covered in red Ripley’s awnings. It was a good fit for a museum displaying the oddities of life, joining other huge, ornate buildings that house the oddities of every culture. You can go as far as to even say making oddities of common items by putting them on display. From its origin, museums were private collections (loot from cultures all over the world) of wealthy families and made public probably to show off that wealth and rub it in the faces of the rest of us.
Walking down Coventry Street, I noticed several souvenir shops one after another. Before crossing the street again, I looked up to see another screen showing LG commercials and the colorful stars made of circles on the signs of the Trocadero in the distance. On the sidewalk curb, a man in his dirty blue hooded sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers played The Carpenter’s “Closer to You” with and orange and white street traffic cone like it was a trumpet. Several walked by not knowing whether to feel strange or be intrigued that he was using a traffic cone. And he didn’t let the surprised stares faze him (then again, he did look “high”). If only I had a camera, it could have gone on Youtube and have a million hits by now.
Across the street, I went into Cool Britannia, the biggest souvenir shop in Piccadilly Circus. Inside was a dimly lit, red decorated store that had enough merchandise for a window shopper’s paradise. Bags, mugs, flags, posters, trinkets, plates, teddy bears, sweatshirts, shirts, decorated license plates, postcards, calendars and anything else you could think of was in there. As I went down the stairs to the basement, I briefly had to stop behind a mother and daughter who were gawking at the silver and gold suit of armor and the red telephone booth on the landing. Downstairs, I saw more of the same stuff. I soon became bored with the place after fifteen minutes and was slightly irritated when I saw a whole section dedicated to Guinness products, especially when I saw a plate item that said, “Black is Beautiful,” but with a picture of cups of beer at the bottom. I thought, “Thank you Guinness for the co-opting.” I made my way for the door.
After I left, I walked towards the Criterion Restaurant with its turquoise and blue marquee. In front of it, a tin man stood there dressed in a silver suit, and gold hat, vest and shoes. Like a pantomime, he said no words, only waiting for tourist to flock to him for pictures as he stood on his silver trunk. I stood there watching a young girl with her black hair tied back in a ponytail and in pink dress, staring him down with a callous look and he stared at her back. She then ran off and he shrugged his shoulders as if he expected that kind of behavior. A teenage boy stepped up on the trunk for a picture and the tin man quickly pulled out a toy silver gun holding it up to the boy’s neck. Catching on to the gag, the boy grabbed his neck and jokingly, the tin man pointed his gun to the boy’s crotch and back up to his neck. I wondered if he did that out of sheer boredom standing there everyday. He has to do something to keep himself going. But the picture was taken and the small crowd around him, including myself, dispersed.
I walked in the direction of the Eros statue and found another crowd surrounding three young, white Eastern European men (I could tell from their accents) on a small black and white checkered dance floor. “If you see something like I break my leg, don’t call the ambulance,” said one in ankle breaker shirt with a half-star underneath the words. “…And if you like the show, please pay for your tickets in the buckets below.”
The three men, the other two in a Funky Poser’s monkey shirt and a musical notes shirt, started break-dancing to a 90s techno song that I barely remember except for the “ooh la la,” part. While one did the various acrobatic movies, the other two tried to get the audience excited by clapping. As soon as the song finished, most of the crowd rushed away avoiding having to put any monetary amount into the light green, blue and pink buckets. The three men, however, were not disheartened as a few offered to give them some change, and just like the others before them, they left the location to continue onto the next willing audience.
I chose to stand in a corner of the window area of the Criterion Theatre, next to the Eros statue. The posters for the play, 39 Steps, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, covered the front walls of the theatre. As I continued writing in my journal, I notice two dark-haired men stare at me as they walked by. I guess they thought I looked strange. I should be used to the stares by now; I don’t look like the average black woman, let alone the average woman in London, not even in America. But I still couldn’t resist giving a snarled look at them and watching them hastily turn away. It’s refreshing to think of yourself as the observer observing others who in turn are observing you and our reactions to each other. Whether in the audience or in front of them, I am on display just like any other.
When I turned to the left, I saw a young, fresh-faced man standing near me in front of the doorway. His conspicuous manner of dress, a black top hat, dark gray jeans, gray shirt and suspenders, did not match his naïve and nervous as he placed his unicycle on his black duffle bag. Not knowing what to do, he took out a translucent Fushigi ball and began to glide it between his hands. I stood there awkwardly wondering if he knew my attention was on him. Gazing at the ball, he smiled as if he was lost in his own world and ignored everyone around him. The streets and its people were all seen in the reflection of the ball as if he held the world between his fingers.
Soon, others began to stop at look at him and the ball, which seemed to float between his hands. For moment, gravity did not exist as he started sliding the ball upon his arms. I knew there was a simple explanation for why the ball did that but I chose not to think of reality at that time, only the magic of the moment. A boy with shoulder-length curly blond hair asked the “magician” how he does the trick. With the ball, he steps forward and bends down to let the boy examine the ball to see if maybe there was a puppet’s string attached to it. Even a man in his yellow soccer shirt had to stop to gaze in amazement. He seemed to be the most genuine, pure-hearted one of all the performers that day.
“Are we all freaks just looking for a stage?” I said this to myself as I turned to head into the Piccadilly Circus tube station. Going down the escalator, I approached guitar player singing R.E.M.’s “Man On the Moon” in a deep, coarse voice. As I passed him, I could still faintly hear him down the hall leading to the train. Another thought came to mind. I remembered that Joe Strummer from the Clash was a busker, a street performer, like all them. I wondered if any of them would leave the streets of Piccadilly one day to the calling of a bigger stage. Would I ever want to do the same? Maybe the real fun lies somewhere on those street corners where you close enough to those who choose to stop and be part of the show.