It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Regarding Street Performances

I was in Boston in late July on business - for the day job, the one that actually pays real money. Boston is a lovely town, despite the suprising summer humidity and an underground that consists of at least one electrified bus line - The Silver Line - I suppose they call it the silver because that's the colour of the buses. A bit grandiose, if you ask me. However, the buses are double-length, a sort of like a double-decker longways. They do actually run underground, which is very, very peculiar.

Anyway, the wife and child came along for the trip, as the room was paid for. On our first evening there, we were able to do a little sightseeing and found ourselves at Faneuil Hall, the large marketplace in the center of downtown. The marketplace includes a large open area in front of the old Quincy Market building.* After a nice meal at Wagamama's (and a marvelous Kirin Ichiban for me, which I highly recommend), we were inside Faneuil Hall proper, in the gift shops engaging in the time-honoured practice of looking over items we had no intention of ever buying. My wife and youngster stepped outside to purchase a refreshing lemonade and a few moments later Mrs. Fando called me on the cell phone to let me know they'd be a few minutes as a street performance was starting and our teenager wanted to see it.

If I had only known, I might have went ahead an purchased a Red Sox cap and an XL "Boston is for Tea Totalers" T-shirt.

Instead, I decided to go outside, having run out of things to mull over not purchasing and intimdated by a massive candy display that threatened to wreak havoc with my fitness regimen. Outside, a wiry gentleman with a short mohawk shaped like spines on the back of a dragon had erected three poles into the shape of a very large tepee. He was talking to the crowd using a microphone and an amp that appeared to be a shaped like a sideways djembe.

I sidled up to my family and watched as this rather highly strung individual artfully pulled a crowd in with a combination of a single decent magic trick, the act of employing a cute kid as a volunteer helper, and the clever strategy of directly imploring people to gather round into a circle.

What happened next is still all a blur. The short version of it is that somehow I wound up tying him in a straightjacket and hanging him up by his heels to the applause of the entire audience.**

As Dave Barry might write: I am not making this up.

The long version goes like this: After the magic trick and pulling the audience into a circle, the performer, a chap named Jason, then set about to finding additional victims...erm, helpers to volunteer as assistants for his act. He also playfully harangued a few passers-by in the process, most likely because they were too busy heading to the Cheers replica bar to stick around for his show.

He then picked a young woman from the audience to assist him. I can't remember her name, so to protect her identity we'll call her Bambi. Bambi was a very good natured, attractive young mother who I'm certain had absolutely no idea that she would be confronted with a spiky-haired, manic with a djembe-shaped amplifier that day. She took it well, all things considered. By this I mean she didn't cry or beat him with her purse.

Next, he announced that he needed a male participant. This moment I remember frightfully well. It was like a scene in one of those crime novels where the clever detective slowly surveys the jaded crowd of suspects, his beady eyes narrowing and his field of vision tightening until he irrevocably hones in on the perpetrator and announces, "You are the murderer, Earl Fando!"

Except this chap didn't say murderer or use my name. He just said, "That tall guy over there!"

Then, as I shuffled forth into the afternoon Boston limelight, he gave me a hug.

Those of you with an eye for standard humourous tactics will surely guess what came next. I, wearing my Arsenal commemorative Highbury jersey, the one with my favourite number on it and my given name***, the one with the Premier league patch, one that I've worn in a number of physically challenging pickup games, the one that makes me look as butch as Robert Mitchum ...became the straight man for a host of gay-themed jokes.

I use the term straight man literally here, as most of the jokes depended strongly upon my being uncomfortable at the attentions of our ever more mincing master of ceremonies.

I didn't see it but the Littlest Fando assures me that the hug was accompanied by a graceful lift of the back leg, the kind Grace Kelly might do, locked in an embrace with Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. If someone had thrown a hat at him he could have caught it on his toe.

I stood there, patting him on the back as though he were an overgrown baby I was trying to burp. Naturally, I was somewhat uncomfortable at the embrace of a strange, overexuberent man, but it's fair to add that any unpleasantness on my face was reinforced by the strong scent of what I can only assume was "straightjacket."**** I decided to forge ahead with as much Christian love and as little inhaling as possible.

(To be fair, it was a rather humid day and I myself probably smelled heavily of "airplane seat.")

There are always those situations where you look back and think, "If only I'd had my wits about me." The missed opportunities at verbal rejoinders to insults are the most common kind of this phenomenon. In fairness to myself, "Over-eager embraces from manic street performers" are not a particularly large percentage of these situations, so my failure to respond with a high degree of wit is somewhat understandable. I think even Robin Williams would have fumbled a bit before regaining his composure and sallying forth with a barrage of silly voices and phallus jokes.

I did get in a few salvos though.

Jason began to explain his act in detail. It consisted of the tepee-like structure, a straightjacket (used, by the look of it - I half expected to see "Commonwealth of Massachusetts Mental Health Department" written in crayon on the back of it), a large rope - of the kind commonly used to tie battleships to piers, the performer, and his two nonplussed volunteers. By "nonplussed," I mean we both spent much of the performance looking at each other and our respective spouses and children and thinking, "What the hell are we doing up here." (Well, I expect Bambi may have thought "Heck." She seemed nice in that sort of way.)

Jason then requested that I tie him up in the straight-jacket. This is the sort of request that I would normally decline at parties or in an office building, even from close friends. Somehow though, being asked by a complete stranger in front of a hundred or so highly amused gawkers breaks down those psychological hurdles in ways I hardly expected.

Jason slipped on the straightjacket, much as a normal person would put on their favourite old coat, if they were putting it on backwards and it had about twice the required fasteners. He then asked me to stand behind him as close as I felt comfortable doing. It was at this point that I took two discreet steps backwards.

All right, it's not Keaton or Chaplin, but it got a laugh. Under that kind of pressure, I'm not at all proud about how I even the score, comedy-wise. (By the way, "even" works out using the same system many amateurs use to calculate their golf scores.)

After Jason realised what was going on, and admonished me to leave the jokes to him (Ha!) I was then tasked with fastening the straightjacket. You may be unaware that the typical straightjacket, even one as well worn as this one, has approximately several hundred fasteners.

In truth, it was three belts, which are still too many, unless you are Three-Belt Dan (Stew will know of whom I speak). The sweat in my eyes and the intense pressure of over a hundred impatient loiterers made it only seem as though they were more numerous. In addition, the belts were very labour-intensive, which is to say they were about as easy to manage as Gordon Brown's party.

At one point Jason asked what was taking so long. He then asked me what my job was. Rather than answer humourous blogging, I decided to refer to my paying job, which is vaguely government-related. He informed the crowd that this was the obvious reason it was taking so long, to which I replied, "Yes, but I don't have the proper paperwork."

I can tell you that the three people who heard my un-mic'd remark were besides themselves with laughter. I'm almost certain they think of it frequently even now and chortle. One day, I expect to hear the comment relayed back to me by an amused third party, accompanied by respectful appreciation for the timing and social critique involved.

However, I digress. Eventually, I managed to fasten the three belts in the back, the middle one just barely, as it fit about as well as my own belt. This left one final strap to fasten: a long dangling piece of fabric designed to run through the legs from the back and be secured over the groin. That's right, it was the dreaded crotch strap.

Let's just say I was strongly reconsidering my participation at this moment. For the proper effect, imagine Sid Caesar in the This Is Your Story bit.

Fortunately, I was granted a reprieve when Jason announced that he was going to let the audience decide who got to tie that particular strap. After a brief vote by applause, he turned to me and called my name, and just as I was about to succumb to complete despair and tie the damn thing, he announced that he had decided Bambi should have the honour. This saved several enthusiastic applauders the ignomity of my hunting them down later as payback. (I don't include my family in this group, however.)

Bambi stepped forward and did a terrific job. She was so overwhlemed with the privilege she was trembling through the whole experience. Shock, I expect. If you can't imagine it, here's a video of Jason working his art with another volunteer on a different day. He's a nice enough bloke, but that's still difficult work.

As for me, let me allow Maxwell Smart to express my relieved thoughts: "Missed it by that much."

Now that Jason was securely fastened, he then informed us that the next step was to tie him with the massive naval rope. Bambi and I dutifully did this, a process that involved us navigating the rope in long slow circles around our delighted master of ceremonies until he looked like the business end of a turban. The general sensation was of dizziness, fatigue, and an extremely minor case of rope burn.

With Jason securely fastened and tied, he informed us all that remained was for him to be hoisted up under the large, metal tepee. It was during this short speech that one of my most enduring memories of the event was formed. I was standing towards the back of the "tepee" when someone whispered my name from behind. It was a total stranger, seated on the steps of Quincy Market. I was a bit startled. Were we so close to the Cheers replica that everyone indeed knew my name?

Then I realized that everyone in the vicinity knew my name because Jason had kindly and repeatedly blared it out via his amplifier. I stood for a half-second wondering what this person wanted. Were they to offer a bit of encouragement? Did they enjoy my few subtle attempts to add to the show? In the end, the guy asked me to move over so he could get a better look at what Jason was doing. Ah, fleeting fame!

Meanwhile, Jason finished his buildup to the grand finale and then dismissed Bambi to appreciative and well-deserved applause and then procured another tallish male participant from the audience to assist with the heavy lifting. Of course, along the way, he suggested we hug. Being good sports and comfortable in our masculinity, we exchanged back pats. Jason then playfully suggested a kiss but fortunately announced he was joking before the two of us could throw his djembe/speaker at him.

We hoisted him up, taking care - per his instruction - not to whack him in the head with an elbow accidentally on the way. I imagine he was taking precautions in regards to any subconscious responses as well, after that crack about the kiss.

As he hung upside down, he kindly dismissed us to a round of applause, thanking us for our assistance. He then explained to the audience that his act was also his job and that he would appreciate any donations at the end of the performance. He expressed the hope that people would at least give him a fiver, but he would be thrilled with a twenty. It was at this point that he turned and announced his love for me in particular. (We gave him the fiver, just for the record...traveling on a budget and all that.)

He then did the escape part, which was fairly impressive, especially given that he'd been upside down for a few minutes and surely had about 80 percent of his blood supply between his shoulders and the top of his skull. After he shook off the rope, probably the most impressive moment was the mid-air sit up he did to reach the crotch strap on the straightjacket... with his teeth.

Let's just observe that the manoeuvre is something you don't want to miss on the first try and leave it at that.

Whilst freeing himself from the rope and straightjacket, he did offer one more bit of unsolicited information. He called out my name one final time in a loud voice and announced, "...By the way, I'm not gay!"

It wasn't an unexpected part of the routine, but it was still a very strange thing to hear the words connected with one's name echoing in the humid air over the worn stone plaza and among the thick brick and steel buildings, old and new.

Had local icon Paul Revere been alive and in the neighborhood, I'm almost certain he would have looked up, scratched his head with silver stained fingers and thought, "Who the hell is that guy talkin' about?"

Anyway, it was a strange experience and a pretty good act, to be fair. If you're ever in Boston, at Faneuil Hall and a bloke with a spikey mohawk asks you to tie him up, tell him Earl sent you. He won't have a bloody idea who you're talking about, but I'd be amused, just the same. (By all means, e-mail me the news.)

And whatever you do, mind the strap.

* Which contains one of the most massive food courts I've ever been in. I'm salivating just thinking about it. Excuse me while I wipe the drool from my shirt.

** I did have help. He wasn't as light as he looked.
***Surely you didn't think it was "Fando?"

**** At this point, I suddenly realise that the use of a "straightjacket" in the act was probably some sort of pun on my situation.

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