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