The hardest part was making my entrance from the Slate building onto the street. This must be how people who want gender reassignment must feel the first time they go out in public as a member of the opposite sex, I thought. Not making eye contact, I walked to the corner of 18th and M Streets and put down a straw hat—seeded with $1.35 borrowed from David. I laid my props next to me: tambourine, maracas, plastic pan flute, and a bag of beads with smiley faces embossed on them I planned to give as gifts to anyone who dropped money in my hat. I put a frozen smile on my face, picked up the maracas, and stiffly started shaking them.
Washingtonians are not easily enchanted. These are people who are grimly important; the lanyards around their necks holding their IDs announce just how important they are. They were determined to ignore me. About a quarter walked by without acknowledgment. The other three-quarters lost a visible struggle with their facial muscles and smiled. But even the smilers refused to stop at the beckoning of my maracas and throw some coins into my hat.
David, meanwhile was conducting his interviews. The reaction, I later heard on the tape, fell into two schools. My fans: "It's silly and fantastic." "D.C.'s not that wacky and this is nice and wacky." "This is very interesting. Is she a mechanical doll?" And my detractors: "Is she on something?" "She's stiff. She's got no dance, no performance." "I keep looking back at her to try to say something good, but sorry." "I thought she was possibly a little loony." Sure, everyone's a critic. These are the people who would have told the young Meryl Streep to forget that acting nonsense and go to law school.
Hoping to loosen people's wallets with a change of instruments, I switched from my maracas to a plastic pan flute. But playing it turned out to be exhausting and dangerous. After a few minutes of hard blowing, David came over to remark, "Do you know your nose is bleeding?" But I wasn't about to let something like a possible aneurysm stop me, although I realized the trickle of blood was probably depressing the crowd and my income. I made a sad clown face and mopped myself up.
Gratifyingly, at one point a high-school classmate of mine, whom I had seen two nights before at an event at the school both our children attend, walked right past me without recognition. I had David bring him over, but when he finally realized who I was, even after I explained what I was doing, he seemed deeply disturbed and scurried away. (The next day, when we were picking up our kids at school, his wife said, "I understand you're now working downtown as a mime.")
My biggest financial score came from a man who watched me from his parked car for a few minutes then beckoned me over. He asked me if I could speak, hear, and write, but I just smiled and shook my maracas. He took out a business card,wrote his home phone number on it, and handed it to me with $2. Either he thought I had promise or he was into demented chicks.
As I was about to pack up after 90 minutes of entertaining (total take: $4.15), a homeless man started to approach. I was worried he was going to steal my money. I watched as he moved in, then stepped away, then moved closer. I caught his eye, smiled, and shook my maracas. He smiled back at me and winked. "No lanyards for us," our looks said.
Having not even made the equivalent of the minimum wage, I was determined to find a more congenial crowd. A couple of days later, I decided to take the Metro downtown and perform in front of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Again my husband expressed deep misgivings.
"You can't ride the Metro in that outfit," he said. "You're going to be arrested." I assured him that though Washington was a town of stiffs, it was not yet run by Mullah Omar.
I set up in front of the museum next to one of the concrete barriers. Immediately two security guards walked by me. I suddenly wondered, is it legal to perform as a mechanical doll on federal property? I smiled, blew my flute, and saluted them frenetically. They returned the salute and walked on. Older tourists gave me a wide berth, obviously having been warned not to make contact with any of D.C.'s depraved citizens. But the kids loved me, dropping coins in my hat as they stared in disbelief. One toddler was so taken with me that he tried to steal my act by scooping up all my instruments and running off with them. A couple of young women deposited a dollar, then one put her arm around me while the other snapped our picture.
I felt looser and more in command of my act. To people talking on cell phones, I would make a yackety-yak motion with my hand. For a woman with magenta hair, I pointed at her head and gave her a thumbs up. I ran after a girl with a smiley-face sweatshirt and handed her one of my smiley-face beads. In 45 minutes I made $6.50.