About halfway through the summer I notice a pattern: I feel the urge to dance whenever I see a street musician, but I never do. It’s like I’ve buckled myself into a straightjacket. Why?
Case in point: I’m in Union Square at dusk on a Friday, and it’s utter madness: The Hare Krishnas moan and drum and spin like they’re possessed; protestors wave Palestinian flags, hollering; tourists pass by in open-top buses, hooting; bottle collectors push grocery carts full of their glass and aluminum treasure; an extremely flexible woman dances on the shoulders of an extremely strong man who tosses her up and down and all around; and in the center of it all there’s the wildman.
He’s a white guy in his 30s, bearded and longhaired, and he’s wearing a lime green speedo, nothing more. He’s covered in mud. It seems he’s putting on an extemporaneous show of some kind. The show is nothing more than the guy just being himself, a wildman. There are no tricks. No real talent. It’s just antics, but the people love it. They’ve surrounded the wildman in a circle. At one point a guy jumps in and grabs a collapsible plastic sawhorse which he begins snapping like the jaws of a monster. The wildman screams, “Eeeeeeek!” and puts his hands to his mouth in mock fright and starts daintily running away from the monster. The monster gives chase and the people go crazy. They absolutely love it. The wildman finally finds an escape: a big plastic ramrod thing (I have no idea what it actually is) and he holds it between his legs and the monster runs right into it, open-mouthed. The people cheer.
Throughout all of this, I keep a comfortable distance from the wildman. This is where I begin to feel the trepidation, the straightjacket reluctance to join in and dance.
A djembe player gets in the middle of the circle and starts bumping out a beat. The wildman is now dancing. He drops to the ground, convulsing in a fit of ecstasy, and then he’s up again, wearing a massive mariachi hat and wagging his finger at us like we’ve all been very naughty. Then, he’s scooching around on a toddler-sized train engine squealing, “Weeee!” and the people are in hysterics. One woman in particular, a big Latina auntie. She’s laughing and laughing, and I’m laughing, too, scribbling it all down from a distance.
I look up from my notes at one point, and the wildman is staring straight at me. An invitation to join? An accusation that I haven’t? I don’t move a muscle. I’ve been seen. Caught. Snatched from the safety of my anonymity. Then, the wildman looks away and he’s dancing again, waltzing with a filthy snowman lawn ornament.
“It’s a life of love,” I hear someone say next to me. It’s an old black man with blue eyes. His name is Peter. He’s come from out of nowhere, and he has said this completely unprompted. Maybe he saw me taking notes. He says it again: “It’s a life of love,” and he spreads his arms wide at the crowds, like Moses parting the sea. “But you have to verify it. I come here to verify it. And you,” he looks at me, “you have to explore it.”
Why did he say this to me? How does he know? I should explore it. I should dance. But now I have to go meet a friend. It feels like I’ve failed a very important test.
But underground at the L platform I get another chance. A man and a woman are drumming out a masterpiece of rhythm on a set of PVC buckets. Larry and Sonya. Husband and wife. They drum from 11:00 to 11:00 some days, Larry tells me later. Now, Sonya’s eyes are closed and she keeps the beat – a simple boom-boom-boom-boom – and Larry is thumping out a rapid-fire river of rat-a-tat genius, and it’s all echoing off the tiles, magnifying, and people have begun to gather around them, irresistibly attracted. A little boy is dancing. His name is Jeremiah. He is the son of the drummers.
It’s too much – the beat, Jeremiah’s groove. I take my hands out of my pockets. I move a little. It’s not dancing, really, but it’s something. It’s a start.