By: Karl Saliter
Enlightenment can hide in the steel wheel within a disposable lighter. Or a music stand. A dented metal water bottle you got from the lost and found. It can be earned from several years spent on the mat in the monastery, faithful to the ringing bowl. Or randomly land on your shoulder like grace herself, as you open a can of tuna for the cat.
I arrived in Halifax Street Performers Festival midday, was given my apartment key, and almost floated into my temporary bed, letting the flight dissipate into the past, letting the world spin by awhile. Caught my breath a sec. Assimilated.
John came later. He is a different sort of act. There is a quiet comedy throughout his being, a dry, engaging voice, which I find very real and refreshing. When you ask John what he does, he looks you dead in the face and says, “Fuck all.” He is a fantastic human statue act. They are rare. (The fantastic ones.)
I’m a comedy juggler—my finish is flipping fire and knives around up on a ten-foot unicycle while playing the harmonica. I’m very biased towards skills and comedy. As a rule, I roll my eyes at statue acts. But I love to watch John. So do people. John transports them into a state of wonder, and causes curious whispers of “Look there.” He calls himself the Invisible Circus, dresses in an otherworldly silver costume with a conical hat, and blows bubbles from a plastic sword. He crushes it. We had met the year prior, performing at the Singapore River Buskers Festival, and I’d found this redheaded Londoner much to my liking. Dextre Tripp came later that day, long and lanky with a huge massive enormous rope-walking show. Picture a slack rope, strung between two seven-foot-high 2×4 “cross beams,” like a tall letter X. It is held up by anchoring to a light post on one end, and by ten volunteers on the other. A skinny dude in black pants and a black-and-white striped tee shirt walks, perfectly confident, to the middle, and tells the crowd why he does this.
“I’m a middle child. Can you tell? I mean, look at me. Look at me!”
“I open the fridge, the light comes on, I do twenty minutes.”
Something about our crooked tribe needs attention like most folks need oxygen. We wither quickly without it, and generally, will find a way to create it, no matter what.At work, gathering crowds of hundreds from nothing, we cultivate attention by being interesting and crying like a baby, in turns. Crying for attention is just as it sounds: point-blank asking, cajoling, demanding people to come to the edge of our space and look. Being interesting is multifaceted. Intentional costume, mindfully placing props like some secret ancient Tai Chi Ritual, marking off a sacred circle with rope, chalk, bottled water, orange cones, plastic chain. “Don’t come here. Something is about to happen.” We fabricate an event vacuum which we intend to fill.
The three of us were there 10 days before the main festival started, hired to tour partner festivals at Saint John’s and Sydney before performing at the 1200-lb-gorilla of festivals, Halifax. We were glad to meet. We meandered through the city, looking over the performing sites, learning who we were. Talking, listening, we walked the miles of our common ground at dinner together. We ended the night in John’s apartment at 11-ish, breathless with validating ourselves to each other, exploring laughter and companionship.
It was soon to tumble into events: more performers were heading to airports. There were to be crowds of thousands and huge circles of laughing, clapping people who had come from all over the world to watch us. That would be just fine.
There are few creatures on this earth quite like the street performer. We are perpetually 12 years old, with the above-mentioned “Look At Me!” gene informing most moments, if not completely running the show. We need validation from people—ideally, from hundreds at a time, wrapped in prolonged laughter, followed closely by lots of cash. But in a pinch, we’ll settle for individual admiration. It’s kind of an eye-roller.
Vonnegut called human attention “something new and wonderful on the planet,” and for street performers, it holds fascination. When we get together at these festivals, a shitstorm of competitive storytelling and one-upmanship is the norm. It is raw ostentation: primal childhood hunger as only the most insecure can provide.
Countdown was upon us. We were there, plane rides over. The hunger would soon be sated. The show was about to get on the road. Urges, needs and cravings were to be felt and satisfied. John even got a wife from Saint John. There were fascinating ladies, Les Neirides, goddesses in blue face and body paint, and one of them would like me. She would walk up to me, body, spirit, and mind, in that order, too close, more than I could handle, and tell me: “I know what it is to eat a color.” I would be fascinated beyond my ability to think. Life was coming at all of us: no parachutes anywhere.
I walked out to the balcony. There was the bubble sword. Irresistible. I blew a few bubbles, and as we were on the 4th floor, they lingered for a long time. John took the sword and blew some with smoke inside. Magical. He did more, perfectly clear this time. His many years spent working the sword showed. He held and moved the sword using his wrist, the air, the balcony itself to its best advantage. Blowing bubbles was John’s self-expression. His bubbles had certainty. Mastery creeps up on performers. Do anything for twenty years, and if you are even partially awake, you’ll get great at it.
John pointed out something as we stood watching: a most temporary climate condition. It was an unusually hot moment in a wet, velvet purse of a night. The bubbles were not sinking. They either followed the uncertain breeze, hovering, or floated up. We paid close attention, focusing. Three very talkative men, men driven to chattiness by invisible genetic coding, grew silent as the bubbles caused quiet. We were swept inside them, glad to go. They floated over Halifax. We lingered long, watching.
Nothing happened and nobody spoke. Irrelevancies watched irrelevancies. The most sophisticated temporary universes ever invented observed inchoate, short- lived soap planets orbit around what amounts to more of the same. Carbon-based life forms reflected on each other. Life caught a glimpse of itself in the mirror, and confronted with shocking silence, stilled.
I know what it is to have the transparent eat you.