Saturday, March 20, 2010

John McEnroe and Robo Schmuck

I lived and worked in Waikiki, Hawaii for two years when I was young. I moved there to escape the even smaller island of Guam, where I grew up.

I met Don Ho when I first moved to Hawaii. Don Ho is the guy that wrote "Tiny Bubbles". I did not make a good first impression: Waikiki had a world famous impersonator show, with people like Michael Jackson, Madona, and Cher. And I would regularly see them wandering around town in costume. One day I bumped into Don Ho in an elevator. I recognized his face from a picture in the Beachcomber. But I thought that Don Ho was dead, and that this guy was an impersonator. So I said: "you really do look just like Don Ho." And he said "I am Don Ho, you moron." I don't think I'm the first person who thought he was dead when they met him.
I got a job handing out flyers for a watch shop in the Beachcomber Hotel. The flyers advertised a sale for "This Week Only." "Sale Ends Sunday." That sale lasted for two years.

Kalakaua Avenue is the main street of Waikiki, lined with the major hotels, all the fancy Channel-and-Versache-type shops, and cobblestone sidewalks as wide as the avenue itself. 10,000 new tourists walk down Kalakaua Avenue every day. This attracted a lot of street performers, who made five times the money I did for doing some of the dumbest acts you've ever seen. There were the usual guitarist, violinist, and plastic milk jug drummer that come in the "ACME Street Performer Variety Pack" issued to every tourist town in this country. But there were also some great musicians and magicians and grifters. And of course there were the crazies, who I would watch for hours a day, waiting for them to do something insane. I had nicknames for some of my favorites. The event I'm going to tell you about occurred between my two favorite performers.

Street performing, like any subculture, has its rules and codes. One of the more important codes is "territory". Performers spread out along Kalakaua Avenue, far enough apart as not to interfere with each other. Where a performer set up was based on three things: seniority, popularity (which did not automatically equal talent), and finally, violent aggression.

Now to tell you this story, I have to introduce the characters. Robo-Schmuck was a mime. But he wasn't the typical mime with a French barrette and white face, trapped in a glass box and tugging on his invisible rope. He was a professional statue. He was nude except for silver-painted spandex shorts, silver-painted Nikes, and silver-painted sunglasses. His body was painted silver from head to toe. Even his hair was painted silver. The paint itself was spray paint from a hardware store.
I knew this because I'd stolen a few bicycles in my youth, and would use spray-paint to disguise them, and I recognized the smell that would make me and everyone standing around hallucinate after about five minutes of his act. Who knows what it was doing to his brain day after day?

Robo-Schmuck's act was brilliant in its simplicity. Stand still. He perched himself on a wooden box, also painted silver, and would hold a pose like a statue while wave after wave of tourists rolled down Kalakaua's sidewalks crashing into the storefronts. He would stand, pointing to some object that wasn't there, always looking away into the distance, until the inevitable…people would stop.
One or two at first, then more, until eventually there was a crowd of people standing around him, half of them watching and waiting to catch him moving, while the other half didn't know what they were standing around for except that they were part of a crowd.

It reminded me of that old trick where you get a few people to stand in a line that goes nowhere, and eventually others will line up behind them for no reason other than mob mentality.

It never failed that some adorable and apprehensive little girl between the ages of four and ten would be shoved forward by her snickering father to "Give him a poke." She would waddle reluctantly forward inch by inch. Then, just as she reached out to touch what she was convinced was a real statue, he would turn his head toward her and she would jump out of her shoes. Every time, without fail, the girl would squeal and jump back, which drew a huge laugh from the crowd. He would then, very deliberately and mechanically reposition himself into a pose where he was pointing down to his silver top hat set in front of his silver box.

He would hold that pose until the little girl realized he wasn't moving again until she talked her father into giving her money to put in the hat. Dad would give her a dollar usually, and she would toss it into the hat and look up expectantly. Robo-Schmuck would then twitch and rock slightly as if he was trying to move but could not break the pose. Then other people would throw money into the hat one at a time until he decided he could shake no more out of them. Then he would twist and turn in and out of poses like the "Thinker" or "Bodybuilder" or "Karate Kid's crane kick pose", until he eventually kneeled almost to the little girl's level, put his arm around an invisible person, and smiled for an invisible photographer. Dad would motion the little girl into the pose, and she would settle into the appropriate spot and he would take a picture. Robo-Schmuck would hold the pose until everyone had a chance to get a picture. And everyone who did was sure to put money in the hat.
Then, when it was all over, he would return to his original pose, pointing off into the distance, and hold it again. The crowd would slowly retreat and disperse, only to be replaced in just a few minutes by a whole new mob represented again by their reluctant five year-old leader. This continued for hours. The guy made a lot of money, and I imagined that he had his own suite at the Royal Kalani Hotel, Waikiki's most expensive beachfront hotel.

Robo-Schmuck was one of my two favorites because he was the most successful of the street performers, and it was obvious that he'd been doing it a long time because he had the best spot on the Ave. John McEnroe was my other favorite. And though his career was short, he was unforgettable.

John McEnroe was an impressionist. He used props to assist him, and carried them with him in a duffle bag. He was a "prop-impressionist"; the best I'd ever seen; possibly because he was the only one I'd ever seen. John McEnroe was also a homeless, fifty year-old black crack-addict from Detroit (at least he told me he was from Detroit). John McEnroe was a newcomer to Kalakaua's street performance scene. His costume was casual. He wore baggy shorts, usually camo khakis. He wore an aloha print t-shirt, after all, it was Hawaii. And he wore flip-flops. The key to John McEnroe's performance costume, what made him so noticeable among the throngs of tourists, was the unmistakable smell of fifty year-old, unwashed ass. John McEnroe's stench radiated like a campfire.

His act…

First of all, John McEnroe needed no little girls to prompt his routine. In fact, he didn't need an audience at all. He had a hat, but it was obvious that he was less interested in money than in the performance itself. Like I said earlier, John McEnroe was a prop-impressionist. The show started when he would announce to a tourist walking by, and not paying attention to him: "And now…Michael Jackson!" He would dig around in his duffle bag and pull out a single dingy white glove, put it on his hand and become Michael Jackson. He would pop-lock and hoot and squeal and do the worst moonwalk you've ever seen. He would grab his dirty nuts and jump up to his tip-toes and kick his foot out. He made sure everyone remembered that he was Michael Jackson by constantly barking out "I'm Michael Jackson! Look at me! I'm Michael Jackson!" When he was done being Michael Jackson, he would dig around in his duffle bag for a pair of sunglasses. He would put them on and announce, again to the unsuspecting, "And now…Stevie Wonder!" Then he would rock back and forth, wrenching his head to the left then the right, barking "I'm Stevie Wonder! Look at me! I'm Stevie Wonder!" Then he would produce a football from the bag, tuck it into his stomach tightly with both hands, and announce "And now…Walter Payton!"
You may have noticed that I did not mention him putting the glove and the glasses back into the duffle bag. That is because he didn't. Apparently, Walter Payton played football while wearing a single white glove and a pair of Ray-ban sunglasses. In fact, all the characters for the remainder of the performance wore the glove and shades.

The Walter Payton character was the most unpredictable of the show because the character would charge at the tourists as they wandered unsuspectingly in range, then at the last moment, plant his feet and spin around them like he was avoiding a tackle. Often, because they didn't even know there was a performance going on, the tourist would try to duck or slide out of his way, only to collide with him, which, by the way, did not discourage Walter Payton from charging another would-be tackler. After Walter Payton came a few other characters like Muhammad Ali, where he would shadow box. And Tiger Woods, where he would hit an imaginary ball with an imaginary golf club with perfect form and follow-through.

The glove sometimes made sense for the Tiger Woods character, depending on which hand he had it on.

I know that by now you have recognized the parade of "Black" characters. So why John McEnroe? Right? Because, one, it was the only "White" character he did, and two, it was the grand finale. It was the most genius piece in his show. He did one after another of African American icons and heroes, building up to what: Martin Luther King Jr. maybe, or Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson? No! John McEnroe. And his John McEnroe was exquisite.

He pulled a tennis racket out of his bag and held it up to the sky with both hands like He-Man, and triumphantly announced "And finally…ladies and gentle men…(dramatic pause)…John McEnroe!" Then he would fiercely serve an imaginary ball to an imaginary opponent. He would run back and forth in a final-round Wimbledon Championship match-point volley: forehand, backhand; one hand swinging the racket, and one hand making popping sounds with a finger in the cheek. Back and forth until he made a dramatic final swing and paused panting and looking up to an imaginary judge perched on his imaginary lifeguard tower. Then he would drop to his knees and scream at the top of his lungs "You fucking idiot! That was in, and you know it. You stupid, blind mother fucker! That was in!" He would flop around on the ground like a two year-old throwing a temper tantrum, screaming obscenities and gibberish until it looked like he was having convulsions. And then he would go completely still as if the performance had finally killed him. He'd lay there holding his racket against his chest like an open-casket Tennis Funeral for thirty seconds or so for dramatic effect, and from this position he would announce "THE END!"

John McEnroe worked nights and started out on the edge of the strip where the new guys always started. But he quickly moved closer and closer to the center of the action, not because he was talented or hygienic or even friendly, but because he possessed the most important of the three keys to street performance: Violent Aggression. His strategy was impossible to defend. He would roam up and down Kalakaua until he felt inspired, and if the space was occupied, he would walk up to the performer and politely suggest "get out of my spot." It usually didn't need repeating. The common Waikiki street performer was very passive in nature. And they always packed up quietly and slithered away with very little dignity.
Eventually, John McEnroe settled into the same spot that Robo-Schmuck worked during the day, but they never ran into each other. Robo-Schmuck never worked very late. He made all his money off of the curiosity of children, and Kalakaua Avenue became very grown up after dark. The shops closed and a different kind of business opened its doors.

The best part of Kalakaua at night was the hookers. There was a lot of money floating around the streets of Waikiki, and a lot of horny tourists (mostly Japanese Businessmen), and that attracted a lot of beautiful hookers from all points of the Pacific Ocean.

Now John McEnroe, on the other hand, his act seemed built for the late-night crowds on Kalakaua. So he would wonder out of some back alley or another (dirty, dark alleys I never even noticed were there until he appeared from them) well after Robo-Schmuck was clocked out. To my knowledge, they never crossed paths before this night.

I don't know what he was doing out so late. Rent at the Royal Kalani Hotel must have gone up; or maybe he was working on a new, edgier routine. Whatever the reason, he was posted at his usual spot well after dark when the Avenue changed her clothes and her mood.

Enter John McEnroe.

John McEnroe sauntered out of an alley (that wasn't there a minute ago) right in front of where Robo-Schmuck was perched. Robo was just starting to attract a crowd, so there were a few people standing around. John McEnroe pushed his way past them and walked right up to Robo-Schmuck and said "Get out of my spot!" Robo-Schmuck, always the professional, did not break character. "Hey mother fucker! Did you hear me? Get out of my spot!" No reaction from Robo-Schmuck. It did, however, get a reaction from the crowd. Now remember, this is the late show, and they respond to a different type of energy than the day tourists. The yelling started to attract more people. "Mother fucker! I know you ain't deaf. I'm warning you, get the fuck out of my spot!"

I don't know why he did it. I have never been a street performer. Maybe he was trying to uphold the integrity of his show. I suspect, however, the silver spray-paint had finally caused irreversible brain damage. Whatever the reason, Robo-Schmuck finally moved. In character, he turned his head toward John McEnroe, silver shades hiding his eyes, and smiled the same fake smile he did for the photos. Then he turned and twisted his arm and fingers mechanically until they settled into a middle finger right in John McEnroe's face.

Nobody saw him reach into his duffle bag and pull out his tennis racket, or maybe they did and didn't want to ruin the surprise. Either way, without any announcement, John McEnroe bashed Robo-Schmuck in the face with it. Robo-Schmuck collapsed on the ground, holding the side of his face, screaming. I'd never heard Robo-Schmuck's voice before. He sounded a bit like a woman.

John McEnroe proceeded to beat Robo-Schmuck senseless with the strings side of the tennis racket. The racket made a kind of "boing" sound bouncing off the top of Robo-Schmuck's head. And every time the racket hit him, Robo-Schmuck squealed like a girl, begging him to stop.
"Boing!" "Eek!" "Boing!" "No!" "Boing!" "Please!" "Boing!" "Stop!"

I couldn't do anything. Not because I was incapable of pulling John McEnroe off of Robo-Schmuck, but because I was never going to see anything so magical again for the rest of my life. I could not be the one to end it. I was frozen stiff.
There was a huge crowd by now, and no one did anything to stop the beating. It was too comical watching a man smack another man around with the fun side of a tennis racket. Nobody believed it was real. What one young Japanese man did do, was throw money into Robo-Schmuck's hat. He thought the beating WAS the show. And as soon as one person threw money in the hat, they all did. In fact, by my calculations, John McEnroe and Robo-Schmuck made more from that fight than any other of their two shows combined. In fact, when it was all over, and they counted all the money in the hat, they decided to make it a nightly routine.

Night after night, Robo-Schmuck would take a beating in front of a sold-out crowd. He was finally free from his safe little daytime show. And John McEnroe was finally getting the recognition he had been dreaming of.
Admittedly, they were never able to reproduce the magic of that first amazing performance, and they lost the ability to draw a real audience once word was out that it was a fixed fight. Eventually, they just seemed to be going through the motions and not trying at all. The act died a forgettable death and they parted ways: Robo-Schmuck back to the kiddie shows, and John McEnroe back to…well…jail probably.

I've seen my fair share of street performances in my day, and I've enjoyed them all in their own special way. But never again will I see and hear anything so fantastic as a man beating another man with the playing side of his tennis racket.

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