Well, yesterday, there I was, out on the street again, performing about four blocks from my house at the Lower East Side Jewish Arts Festival. And only five minutes after getting myself set up, which is pretty quick, when you consider how far gone we’re talking about, had already given up the last ghost of my winter doubts, sworn myself in and was giddily – really, let’s face it, hopelessly, helplessly – thinking such thoughts as, “How could I have even for an instant considered not doing this?” and stood there, fresh out of hibernation, carrying on just as usual, beaming from the curb.
My first potential customer wasn’t even as tall as me. He came close and you could tell he was proud about something. He gave a manly tug at his wide, imitation-leather belt, which didn’t look too expensive, and neither did his brightly-checkered shirt and green slacks. He sized up my sign, then stood directly in front of me. His fingers were still in his belt, and it felt like he was squaring off with me.
“How tall are you?” That was his challenge. He was a bold one all right.
He nodded judiciously. A woman with a shopping bag came by, took one look at the sign, his outfit, my face, and walked on. “How much you weigh?”
“About 125 pounds.”
He nodded again, with the same thoughtful look, as if he were planning to wrap me and mail me somewhere. After a moment, watching his expression, I could tell he believed me. Unexpectedly, he smiled. “I bet I could pick you up.”
“I bet you could, too. You look pretty fit.”
My flattery, though, made his smile disappear. Some people don’t trust compliments from strangers, but that wasn’t the problem – or not all of it – he was concentrating on something else. He moved alongside me, quickly wrapped his arms around my waist, hugged me back into him, and lifted me about two feet off the ground. “You’re light.”
“Thanks. Could you put me down now?” My words sounded a little grunty, because somebody had a hammerlock on my stomach.
“I could hold you up for a long time.”
“I think so too. Can I be put down now?”
“I could pick up people much heavier than you.”
“They might not like it, though. Time to put me down now.”
Gently, he did so, and walked off, with the stride of a man who has made his mark on the world and knows it. My first prospect of the season. This is not my job, being picked up, but these things come with the territory.
Two Chasidic Jews, they wore black frock coats, their side locks of thick black hair were uncut, dangling curly in front of their ears, also stood by for awhile, looking certain and detached, discussing my offer, as spelled out on the sign. “So. He recites the poetry. But what’s so special?”“He does it really well,” I answered.
“Yes, but is it worth paying? How much is a poem worth?”
“Don’t you see here, on my sign, where it says, ‘Pay What You Like’?”
“Sure, sure, it says that, that’s what it says, but it’s like a Jewish mother.” Both I and his companion paid close attention. “She puts the food in front of you and says, ‘Eat if you like. You don’t want, don’t eat. I’m only your mother, so kill me. I only slaved over the hot stove. Let it sit, break my heart, don’t worry – ’ Guilt! Guilt!”
Observers, analysts – not listeners. Again no sale.
Next was the man passing out leaflets about Argentine Jews who are being murdered and tortured. It was pretty shocking to read about at a sunny afternoon street fair. My impression was that this kind of thing was going on all over Central and South America, and not just to Jews, but to anyone who opens his mouth or cuts his hair differently, or even hangs around with someone who does either of those things.
“But these people are like the Nazis in Germany,” he explained. “Their plan is to destroy the Jews. They’re only killing Jews.”
“Are you sure? Didn’t they kill Gypsies, too, people who were aged, mentally ill, dissidents – ”
“No. You see, this is a lie that the Jews spread during the War. They needed help, and no one would give it because it was only Jews. So they began to exaggerate about the other groups. They started telling everyone, ‘Look, it isn’t just Jews. The Nazis are killing everyone! You could be next,’ and then they helped. A little. But after the War, if you talked to concentration camp survivors, they’d say, ‘Gypsies? What gypsies? All I saw in Auschwitz, all I saw in Dachau was Jews. Only Jews in the exterminating camps.”
No sale with him, either. I took his pamphlet.
A very little girl, she looked to me about five, in a parka that nobody would need on such a nice day, not zipped up by whoever made her wear it, who had also probably given her the kitten-faced helium balloon she was holding, strolled over. I didn’t smile. Smiling at children is often a mistake, they think you’re trying to put something over on them. I don’t try to get kids to listen to poems anyway – they have too much on their minds.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m reciting poetry, if people want to hear.”
“I don’t know. I like it. It’s fun.”
Twenty minutes later she was back, with an older girl, who acted a lot like a sister. “You do poems?” the new person asked.
“We want to hear one.”
I considered for a few moments, and did “Jabberwocky” for them. I hop up and down and wave my arms at certain places when I recite this poem. They stayed to the end, and so did a couple of other people who were delighted, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell if either of these girls had liked it at all.
“Was that a poem?” asked the older one, finally.
“Absolutely.” I picked up the money other listeners had left. “What are you, a critic?”
She didn’t answer, but the littler girl said, “Yes,” without hesitation, nodding so hard the balloon in her hand nodded, too.
And that’s how it started, this year anyway.