& Towels For Rent

 

by Jim Rose and Melissa Rossi from the book "Freaks Like Me"

 

Bebe got that red-nosed look that alerts that she's about to cry, and frankly, I felt the same way. "What are we going to do?" she asked.

 

"Aw, Beeb, don't worry," I lied, "tomorrow will be better." We slunk back to the motel, not saying a word. That night our neighbors were banging into the wall with such force that our lumpy bed was shaking with theirs as if we were having a wall orgy. I couldn't sleep and stayed up all night figuring out what was wrong.

 

I didn't know at the time that performing on the street in the U.S. is a lot different from performing onstage. Ground-level acts have to snag the audience, and then lure their trust. And whenever people would wander by my spot, and see my tools of trade, the bed of nails and the jagged mountain of glass, they'd pick up their pace. If their interest was even slightly piqued, they'd watch me from fifty yards away as if I'd be tossing their ass in the glass.

 

So I was having a horrible time getting a crowd. My shows became only practice; even Bebe was bored being my sole fan as I ran through my routine over and over, waiting vainly for an audience to gather. By the afternoon Bebe looked dejected, fingering designs in the sand. I noticed they were arrows, all pointing down. She refused to stand on my head. "What's the point?" she asked. "Nobody's looking."

 

That night as I lay on the lumpy bed watching the spiders weave in the corner, I figured out a fundamental rule of performing: Being able to market what you do is more important than what you actually do. It took me about six hours of lost sleep, (while the Italian couple one thin wall away wailed, "BIO MIO, BIO MIO!" into the night), to figure that out.

 

Next day I was back, shaking with piss and vinegar, loudly yelling, "The wonders of Europe are here before you! I'm Jimmy the Geek, here to show you the secrets passed down from generation to generation!" Well, that got a few chicken legs' attention, but once I started pounding stuff up my nose, they'd bolt.

 

So I regrouped. While Bebe guarded the gear, I cruised back along the beach, studying performer after performer, seeing how they pulled in their crowd.

 

A half mile down I heard loud Calypso tunes like you'd hear in Trinidad. A crowd was forming around a slight man with a pencil-thin moustache parked on his upper lip. It was Perry Hernandez, the Ambassador of Limbo. As I peered through the throng, I was amazed. He wasn't doing anything. Except sweeping. Perry was sweeping off his area with a broom with such energy, giving you the feeling that something incredible was going to happen any minute. An anticipation crept through the crowd, why is he a sweeping fiend, what is he going to do? All the while the Ambassador of Limbo didn't so much as look up, letting them be sucked into the mystery without explanation.

 

After five minutes, when 150, or so had gathered around, he tossed down the broom, picked up his limbo stick, and started to dance. The audience was snared: they'd spent so much time waiting for the show, they weren't going to leave till it was through.

 

The Ambassador inadvertently passed on a key to the crowd building process: Don't look. Eye contact intimidates passersby, they feel too intimate, and walk away; so don't look. At least until you have thirty or more gathered around, wondering what the hell you're doing and why you're not looking at them. Take time setting stuff up. Appear very busy and worried, like something huge is going to happen that's potentially very dangerous. That's what I'd been doing wrong: I'd been eyeing the crowd like a hawk, and by the end of my unwatched act it was with that pitiful, pleading look in my eye that inaudibly conveyed, "Don't go, please don't go, stay." It was as effective as the sobbing boyfriend clinging to his bolting girlfriend's knee.

 

So I darted out, with some of our precious last dollars, bought a tape player, like Perry had, and a tape. And when I went back to my towel, I dragged out the bed of nails and started measuring it, adjusting each nail with a pair of pliers. I measured, adjusted, measured, adjusted, dinked around some more.

 

And that day I got a crowd, not a big one, mind you. But at least there was a gradual assembly. As soon as I had twenty or thirty gathered around, I'd say, "It's show time, everybody take five steps forward, let's go!" That's another key of crowd control, you have to exert your authority, always make them move around, and leave no question that you are their leader. But at that point I didn't have a well-talked act.

 

There I was doing the most spectacular things on Venice Beach, but then the crowd would start jeering me, challenging me, heckling me. And they would walk away right when I was asking for the money. I didn't know how to react. It was pathetic. Oh, God, it was pathetic. I was almost ready to throw in the watercolorist's towel.

 

It was, after all, my fifth day on Venice Beach, and I still hadn't done a complete show with people sticking around long enough for me to pass the hat. I was spending forty dollars a day on rent, and ten dollars to my illegal landlord, not making a cent. I had less than a hundred dollars left, and Bebe and I were surviving on little more than oranges and bananas.

 

And it was so damn hot, oppressively hot, ridiculously hot, it's Venice Beach, for Chrissakes, and I'm out there doing six shows a day for nothing, working harder than anybody. I tried to be optimistic and remember at least I could get a crowd. Now, if I could only get them to stay, and pay. At night while my neighbors were groaning next door, I paced the room thinking of lines to pull them in and comebacks to shut them up. “Hey, I don't knock the sailors' cocks out of your mouth when you're working!" I'd yell to invisible hecklers. I'd bellow stuff like that through the night. Bebe thought I was nuts.

 

By the end of the weekend I could talk my way through a show and have enough control to keep spectators throughout. But I still didn't have enough influence to get them to drop much in that cap. My second week there, I was doing almost forty shows a week—and maybe making fifty dollars a day. Just breaking even. It wasn't enough to survive. Bebe and I cut back to two bananas.

 

Hunger and anger, I found, are the two great motivators. And I was feeling both. My third week on the beach, fueled by a desire to eat pasta or pizza or beef or anything but bananas, I was getting better with presentation. It was a semi-amusing show at this point. "I'm Jimmy the Geek," I'd yell. "Kids, stay in school or you'll end up like me." The kindest of hearts would drop a little money, but not a lot. Most of it was pennies and dimes, maybe the occasional quarter. It sometimes added up to seventy dollars a day. We went back to three bananas and added oranges and croissants.

 

Conversion and sidewalk banking became a daily ritual. I joined into the mini-economy on the beach, trading change for bills from the boardwalk merchants, hoping they wouldn't notice my Canadian dimes.

 

Venice Beach, I was discovering, is the toughest place in the world to make it. Just like on a typical car lot there were only one or two guys making all the money, and the other thirty lived hand-to-mouth. There's no in between: you're either real good at it, or ought to get another job. I wondered if I had the true desire to be real good at this and scratch out a living.

 

Week three was a gut-check period. I wasn't getting good enough fast enough. I knew what was holding me back, but it was a difficult line to cross. I noticed that of all the performers, only three were good at collecting money, And I studied their techniques they used to get bills out of pockets and into their hats.

 

Their secret: They turned collection into such a comical event, it was a show unto itself. They had different ways to entice their audience into paying, and they all had a gimmick. One guy, the chain-saw juggler, had a big plastic bat and he'd hit the cheapos over the head with it, if they didn’t pay. Another guy, a comedian named Michael Collier, had a long stick with a snatcher on the end and sections of the crowd would hold up their dollars at the same time, and he'd grab them like a long-armed lobster. "The Green Wave," it's called. Another guy, the Mime from Iran, squirt-gunned the ones who didn't pay.

 

They all collected their dough right before the final stunt, which was pitched as though everything seen before was nothing compared to what was about to happen. That was enough of a lure to keep the chicken legs planted, continuing to take the abuse.

 

And the formula was so heavy handed that most people paid; the crowd enjoyed watching the stingy ones be abused, squirted, batted, and humiliated with lines like "Reverend, it's just like church put the money in the basket," or "Oh, look here, everybody this one's tighter than frog pussy and that's waterproof."

 

It worked. I started making seventy-five, sometimes a hundred dollars a day, and could cut back to three shows. Thank God, because I was exhausted.

 

Those were the days when life on Venice Beach was pretty sweet. Bebe and I would sit on the beach in the morning, drinking lattes, eating croissants, listening to Edith Piaf. In the evenings we'd rent bicycles and ride along the beach. I was reading books by the dozens about sideshows and stunts, and was also learning many foreign languages; thanks to our motel neighbors, who came from around the world, I could say, "My God!" "F@#& me!" in dozens of tongues.

 

I wanted something but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. Life was so laid back and blissful that I didn't care to figure it out. One afternoon, a brutally hot one, a roly-poly fellow waddled my way. I'd noticed him at my last show observing among other things that he didn’t donate to me cause, and that his attire was that of a car salesman, right down to the pinkie ring. Despite the fact this was California the guy was tan less, and on that fat, swollen white face were a pair of black-rimmed, oversized glasses that magnified his beady eyes.

 

"Hey, geekie," he said in a manner reminiscent of a carny. "The name's Clark—Clark Wellington. I'm an agent. And I'm going to make you huge. HUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!

 

He extended his chubby hand, which was so pasty, it looked like a biscuit with fingers.

 

"We're gonna take you all over the world, geekie, and we're gonna make you huge. I'm gonna have to work with ya a little bit. But when I'm through, you're gonna be huge. The money won't be great in the beginning, but soon, geekie-boy, you're gonna be huge, huge, huge, huuuuuuuuuuge."

 

With promises of grandeur he flipped out his card from that pudgy biscuit hand, and said to stop by the next day. There was something seedy about him; my hopes were up.

 

Clark lived in Beverly Hills, in a pretty nice house, which wasn't grand or palatial, but nonetheless had the requisite pool, the deck, the carport with a red Jaguar inside. I figured his biz must have been doing okay. But he certainly wasn't at the top of the heap: his house wasn't that big, his Jag wasn't that new, and his pool wasn't that clean.

 

So Clark sat me down at his sprawling oak desk, lit up a cigar, and then proceeded to take, and make, a few hundred phone calls, telling everybody how he loved them, kiddo, and all the while winking at me.

 

An hour and a half of teleschmooze later Clark finally put down the phone. When he turned to me, his tone suddenly changed entirely, and somberness slid over his face.

 

"Let's go in the living room and talk," he said, guiding me into the room where Bebe had been forced to wait all along. He cleared his throat, relit his cigar, and exhaled a large plume. "Listen here, geekie," he said. "I gotta tell you the truth. Your act is shit. You're a shitty performer and your presentation is worse. It's gonna take a lot of work to polish this turd, and I don't know if I got the time, or the energy, to make you huge."

 

My jaw was scraping the white shag carpet, my ego had slithered under the console. "Yeah, geekie," he said. "I'm not sure what we can do to help you out, but I'll give it some thought. Why don't you give me a call next week. In the meantime, how about I borrow your wife?"

 

As if he'd hit the instant eject button, Bebe and I bounced up from the couch and headed for the door. It was clear the only thing he'd hoped to make huuuuuuuuuuge was his dick inside my wife.

 

I vowed right there that I'd make myself a name without his.

 

I kept studying the gimmick guys, and perfecting my crowd-control abilities. By early August I'd figured it out. The last week's totals were more than a grand.

 

But you know, I wasn't enjoying it. All the hoopla and persuasion, all the crowd control techniques that wasn't why I was an entertainer. It was starting to fell like car sales. The summer was closing, the peak tourist season dying down, and it would be hard earning much from the locals, who typically paid us in fruit.

 

I was antsy, once again falling victim to wanderlust. Then I heard of a festival up in Seattle. Something called Bumbershoot.

 

All stories and photos are re-printed with the permission of Jim Rose.

 

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