Thursday 22 November 2007

The Crazy Canuck - Adventures with Perfect Strangers

This post is dedicated to you, Sarah, because I do take requests, and yours was a good one.

Times Have Changed
It all seems a bit tame now, compared to what Sasha Baron Cohen has done lately with Ali G and Borat, but it sure felt pretty cutting-edge at the time. I'll never forget how validated I felt about it all when I got a call from a producer at BBC Two, wanting to include me and my show in his weekly television series. Perhaps if I had taken him up on it then, I might be in a different place now. But, when I got the call, I had already made up my mind to leave England, on what at the time I clearly felt to be a greater mission.

One In The Oven
I think I first thought of the idea out of little more than simple frustration. I was living in London, working some evenings as a barman in an Irish pub in Tottenham, and spending most of the rest of my time trying to give birth to a novel. I use the birth metaphor in a fondly nostalgic way; one of the regular punters in the drinking establishment where I tended bar was a former writer himself, or at least fancied himself as such, and he used to jest, in his mischevious rural Irish brogue, that I was looking a bit piqued, being, as I was, pregnant with a novel. He was the same kind soul who had advised me, correctly as it turned out, that the only conceivable way to get a tip out of an Irishman in London, was to learn the little trick o' the wrist that would produce, in one pour, a shamrock in a head of Guinness. From then on we'd had an understanding; he'd help me get better tips, and I'd occasionally forget to ring in his drink order.

Sing For Your Breakfast

In any event, my weekly barman's wages were barely enough to pay for the occasional full English breakfast indulgence I favoured at the local cafe, so I was attempting to supplement these wages with another, very newly learned, talent. Had I not been so fortunate to be lodging in a place where the rent and bills had already been paid, I would never have even been able to afford to explore this potential talent, though it is probably unfair to my then host and still dear friend John to condemn him to infamy for having allowed me enough latitude to pollute the world with that talent. Talent probably wasn't the word for it; it was more like willingness, or gumption. You see, to raise my station, I had resolved to begin a shadow career as a busker.

A Star Is Born
Ever since I had first stepped off a train platform and into the rich, warm world of a subway tunnel filled completely with the sweet breath of a tenor sax, I had held the busker as one of my most envied icons. I had never had any training or experience as a singer, not before or since I had stood on stage in a grade school production and sung what may have been a perfect, unaccompanied solo before a room full of awestruck parents, but I was pretty sure that I could sing, and completely sure that I wanted to. The fact that I couldn't play more than three chords, badly, on an old acoustic guitar, with a broken golf tee holding in one of the strings, was not an impediment in the least. It was a phase in my life where everything new and exciting was worthy of pursuit, though, in saying that, I suppose that some who know me would contend that that is a phase from which I have yet to fully emerge.

The Perfect Complement

My busking companion, Dave, had the opposite problem. He was, by all accounts including mine, hopelessly talented, and could with his guitar and accompanying voice hold the spotlight like the most seasoned performer, at least among a small circle of friends. Anyone lucky enough to hear him had been telling him for years that he could make more than enough busking in the tunnels of London's Underground to support any number of his many vices. Nobody seemed to know for sure what had always prevented him from taking that advice, but, until I arrived on the scene, prevent himself he had, but would no longer. Perhaps he saw in my appearance an opportunity for the perfect experiment; my guitar playing was so bad that it could only highlight the quality of his own, and my voice was loud enough that, if an attack of nerves did strike his own vocal chords, it likely wouldn't be noticed among my high-pitched squawking.

Tunnel of Love

Most London buskers knew that there was only one place to be if you wanted to serenade The Tube's commuters in style, and that was smack dab in the middle of the long tunnel running from Green Park station. There was something almost mythical about the acoustics in this particular tunnel; it added fullness and richness on the low end, and clarity to the high end of the sonic spectrum. We happened also to be blissfully ignorant at the time that there was a code among buskers as to who could pitch up in that tunnel and when, so we resolved to set ourselves up there every chance we could. Whether it was our lack of harmony, my early lack of showmanship, or just a general lack of interest, we ended up making very little money. Still, we had a great time doing it, regardless of whether or not anyone was actually paying attention.

Pretty Vacant

It was the paying attention part, in fact, that I found most interesting, and subsequently inspiring. Anyone who has boarded public transit pretty much anywhere in the world, with some glorious exceptions, knows the wooden stare worn by most passengers as relates to their fellow travellers. It was with some surprise however, and a little chagrin, that I learned while busking that this extended well beyond the train and its platform. It was one thing, I thought, to avoid the eyes of the guy sitting across from you by pretending to read the same advertisement for chewing gum over and over, over his head. It was quite another to pour out one's soul through music or banter and receive an almost identical reaction. My problem with this while busking was not that I came to resent this type of reaction. Rather, it was that, apart from a few examples, I was sure I saw, underneath the veneer of disinterest, a yearning among many people who passed to participate in some fashion, but confusion of how to do so for fear of embarrassing themselves by doing something even the least bit out of the ordinary.

A Different World

I was almost certainly spoiled. Having experienced not that long before the colourful social extravanga of riding a bus in, say, Kenya, I had come to expect that the natural state of a human being in such a situation was not to close oneself off but to open oneself up. Countless hours in crowded buses throughout Africa, though often uncomfortable, had produced the most incredible array of social bonding opportunities, from singalongs among strangers and games of pass-around-the-cute-baby to live chicken fights and impromptu mini-picnics. I had to believe that, even here in less tropical climes, with all the layers of clothing and headphones and packages that separated people from one another, there had to be the same simple attraction somewhere under there that pulled them together. My revelation, as I searched often vainly for real responses from those to whom I was singing, was that, if I didn't have the talent to strengthen that pull musically, there had to be something I could to show these people how much fun a Kenyan bus could be, or at least how completely ridiculous it was to be all alone in the midst of a whole bunch of interesting people.

Birth of an Idea

As it happened, this notion coincided well with my lack of financial success as a musician, which meant that those breakfasts I cherished were fast becoming unattainable. So, necessity as mother and insight as father begat invention, a little being that believed it could rise above it all by taking me, its willing sibling, deeper underground. I wondered what would happen if, rather than a couple guys playing guitars and singing, those streams of living organisms that passed incessantly through the Tube were given something to really startle them. How would they react? What would it take to break through those barriers and touch the people behind all those blank expressions?

All Downhill From Here

So, with hardly any idea as to what I was going to do, but knowing that it was going to be some kind of show, I created an act and named it after a great Canadian ski-racing team, renowned in the previous decade, and managed to get "Crazy Canuck Tube Theatre" listed for free in the Fringe Theatre section of Time Out magazine. All that was left to do while I waited for the phone to ring was to figure out how, when, where, and with whom I would carry out my shenanigans. To my delight and subsequent trepidation, I did not have to wait long at all for the first phone call. I hadn't considered that paying customers might actually have questions before they purchased, so it isn't surprising in the least that I scared away at least the first three or four prospective customers who called, owing to my utter cluelessness as to the details of what I proposed to do to justify the 10-pound ticket price.

Reconnaissence Mission

On the plus side, the calls I was getting at least told me that there might actually be people out there who might pay for this type of thing, so I wrote out a list of prospective antics, bought a day pass, and spent seven or eight hours in the subway system scouting stations, platforms, and a possible route that would allow me to accomplish what I wanted to in a time span brief enough to hold the attention of my audience but long enough to let them feel they had gotten enough value for their money to recommend the show to their friends. It would turn out that I was woefully unprepared for the logistical manoeverings that it would take to execute such a show, but, if nothing else, my tour gave me enough information to be able to answer enough questions to convince others that this particular form of entertainment was worthwhile. I also managed to convince myself it was do-able.

On With The Show!

My pitch proved sufficiently refined that I managed within a couple days and only a few more calls to cobble together a group of eight audience members, which I thought would be the perfect number for my inaugural show. After taking down some availability information from each member of the group, I gave everyone a time and place to meet, let them know how they'd be able to recognize me, and insisted on only one hard and fast rule that they would have to follow in order to guarantee a successful show. In order for the show to work, it was imperative that nobody in the vicinity of where the show was taking place could suspect that it was in fact a show; my audience had to pretend they were regular commuters. That meant they couldn't give any signs that they were together, and they definitely couldn't reveal that they had any connection whatsoever to me. Even in our initial meeting place, they would know me by what I was wearing but they could not acknowledge the beginning of our show. Each swore, often while chuckling, to uphold this cardinal rule, breach of which would mean immediate banishment from the show.

The Fool Rushes In
And so it came to pass that, on a chilly afternoon in November on which rain soaked the streets above, I donned my disguise in where else but Green Park station, and made myself conspicuous in our pre-arranged location. My audience found me sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed, dressed only in a makeshift loin cloth, on a common space just inside the turnstiles, chanting a particularly fashionable Buddhist mantra. I was freezing, pathologically nervous, and completely unsure of what was going to happen next. It was extraordinarily exhilarating.

Quick Change
When I was sure that my audience was among the hundred or so people gathered around me, I opened my eyes, calmly got to my feet, reached down into my bag, pulled out some track pants and a University of Toronto sweatshirt, got dressed, and headed toward the escalator. When I reached the train platform, I put my hands together, smiled, and bowed Namaste to anyone who insisted on staring at me. When the train came, I stayed on the platform without boarding, deducing, correctly as it turned out, that those who remained on the platform with me would be my audience. Quickly and quietly, before others started arriving on the platform, I collected the ticket price from each member of my already captive audience, reminded them to spread out and eventually rejoin me so as not to acknowledge that they were with me, and made a couple further wardrobe changes. By the time the platform started filling with people, I was ready for my next scene with a fresh set of onlookers.

Put Your Head On My Shoulder
When we got through the doors of the train, I looked around immediately for the toughest-looking young man that I thought would stop just short of beating the crap out of me for what I was about to put him through, and took a seat next to him, hoping that he'd be on for at least the next two stops. I don't remember much about that particular guy, but I remember enough to know that he was not someone of whom my parents would have approved. As soon as the train started moving, I began to pretend to nod off, letting my chin drop slowly to my chest and then pulling my head up abruptly, as though resisting the urge to doze completely. As I was doing so, I also began to lean slowly toward my surly target, and he began to shift in his seat a little uncomfortably. On one of my chin droops, I slumped further to the right and let my head fall more quickly until I felt it hit his shoulder. Almost instantly, he shrugged abruptly to dislodge my head, and I sleepily motioned an apology that I had disturbed him. I'm sure it didn't help either that several of my audience were giggling audibly, although, as he likely frowned disapprovingly at having his personal space so invaded, they were also shaking their heads in feigned sympathy with him, doing their part to keep up the ruse. In fact, seeing the couple across from me on the verge of wetting themselves as they struggled with repressed laughter, it was all I could do to keep my concentration and not join them.

Falling, Asleep
I then resumed my dozing sequence until the train came to the next stop, hoping that my neighbour wasn't getting off, and leaning away from him to make sure that he wasn't so perturbed that he'd change his seat. When we lurched into motion again, I let my head fall back and began to snore loudly. I believe even my victim found this funny, as I heard him chuckle, which was good because I was about to really test the limits of his tolerance. After a few more loud, rasping snores, I dropped my chin back down toward my chest, took a sidelong peek out my right eye to determine my position in relation to my prey, steeled my fraying nerves, and fell over until my torso was horizontal and my head was resting in his lap.

Car Crash
I can only imagine what the look on his face must have been, but I can attest factually to his physical reaction. The first thing he did was to raise both his hands into plain view, likely to let everyone in the train car know that this was not an action that he had solicited or welcomed in the least. This was a mistake on his part, for it gave me an opportunity to execute the second part of my plan, which was to reach as if in a dream for his left arm, pull it towards me as I murmured happily, and start snuggling it the way a sleeping child does with a teddy bear. This was, of course, too much for the poor fellow to take, so he stood up hastily and forcefully and I fell to the floor with a thud.

Mind The Gap
Either my planning had been very good or I had been very lucky, because the timing ended up being almost perfect for the purposes of continuing the show. We were less than a minute from the next scheduled station in my tour, so I used the subway pole to pull myself to my feet, apologized profusely, and skulked sheepishly over to the door. It was important to the reality element of the show that I look as anxious as possible to leave the whole incident behind, but I'm sure it won't surprise you to know that wearing the appropriate expression wasn't much of a stretch. The train car stopped, and I scampered out, followed by my audience and a few other random passengers.

Indecent Descent
The next step was to transition into my next stunt, which didn't actually require any change of clothes or even the removal of witnesses to my previous antics from the audience. I had planned a transfer to another subway line, which was a long escalator ride down from the level to which we had exited from the train. Walking in the midst of the members of my little entourage, I stepped onto the escalator, and, as it carried us down, I began to exhibit signs first of anxiety and then of outright panic. About half way down, I gripped tightly onto the moving handrail and began yelling that I did not want to go down any further because I was extremely concerned about what kind of creature was living in the subway's deepest depths. At about two-thirds of the way down, as my audience continued to the bottom, I mounted the handrail and climbed onto the steep median between the up and down escalators, still shouting, and took hold with both hands of one of the knobs that populates such medians, so that I was left hanging on the median like a man clinging to a cliff face, in a state of extreme stress and discomfort.

Unlikely Angel
Reactions to this spectacle, as one might expect, were mixed. As I half expected, the majority of people did their utmost to seem completely oblivious and pretend to notice nothing, clearly not wanting to get involved in any way with such a raving lunatic. Others shook their heads and muttered to themselves about how people like me could be allowed to roam London's public places or, for that matter, even afford a subway ticket. However, as always, the reactions of a select few helped to restore my faith that, somewhere in that crowd of onlookers, there were traces of genuine humanity. One person in particular sticks in my mind from that first show, a portly middle-aged man, clearly working class, who, without fear of being embarrassed or injured, rode the escalator down to where I was and, once there, made it a point to keep stepping in place up the down escalator next to where I was hanging. I didn't know who he was or what he was about to do, but he completely caught me off guard when he craned his neck to make eye contact with me and then started offering me kind words of encouragement to coax me off the median. In spite of being in full adrenaline-fueled show mode, my eyes almost filled with tears when he put his hand gently on my back, and uttered the following words:

"Mate, I don't know what's down there either, but I'll go down with you and whatever it is, we'll give it a right old go."

The Real Performer
I think for a moment I actually forgot that I was acting, as I climbed back on to the escalator and, with his arm around my shoulder, we rode the moving stairs down into the abyss. A small crowd had gathered at the bottom, and as we stepped together off the escalator, several people began to applaud. I wasn't sure what to do next, as I was genuinely affected by the man's grace and I couldn't bear to string him along further in my charade. Spontaneously, I threw my arms around him, gave him a big hug, expressed my profound appreciation, and told him that I was feeling much better. After numerous reassurances to convince him and everyone else that I was going to be fine, he and everyone else left me sitting on a bench at the bottom of the escalator, surrounded only by the members of my audience, shaking their heads at what they had just witnessed.

To Be Continued
I am going to end my account of that day's events there. In total, I ended up doing only three shows, the final one ending with my being taken into custody by the police during my escalator routine. Explaining to London's finest exactly what I was doing and why I had done it while trying to prove that I was neither inebriated nor insane is a story in itself, but I won't relay it here.

The End
I end it here, because, in almost every way, with that one individual, I found what I had been unable to find in the moment the whole bizarre notion first visited me. Yes, I did it partly for the money, and it certainly bought me some breakfasts, and yes, perhaps I did it partly for the attention, for who would do such things, or even conceive of them, without craving some significant sort of attention in some significant manner? The soul of the matter though, resides in the instant it first struck me, while singing to passerby at Green Park station, that, even in the midst of a buzzing swarm of people, so many individuals could seem so utterly unattached. Whether those faceless strangers reached out and touched me, or just somehow reached out to each other, I was really just looking for signs of life. And in that portly, middle-aged man with kind eyes who gave an important piece of himself to me in the London Underground on a chilly November afternoon, that is exactly what I found.

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