Slate turns 10 this week, and we're publishing The Best of Slate: A Tenth Anniversary Anthology. In celebration of the book and the anniversary, we're publishing (or, rather, re-publishing) a selection of pieces from the anthology, including this article. This article was originally published Oct. 30, 2003. You can see a list of all the republished pieces, as well as everything else we are publishing in honor of the anniversary, here.
As I put the final touches on my makeup for my debut as a Washington, D.C., street performer, the loving words of my husband echoed in my head: "You look like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" He had a point. The combination of pigtails, crow's-feet, and rouged cheeks was so disturbing that I wondered if I could actually go through with standing on a downtown corner and doing my act. I desperately wanted a combination of Xanax for my anxiety and Zantac for my stomach acid. Now, there was drug I could use: Xanzan—the pill for the talentless street performer.
Becoming a street performer was a challenge posed by a particularly cruel reader of previous installments of Human Guinea Pig—the column in which I explore odd, intriguing, but mostly odd corners of life. The challenge was compounded by the fact that I possess none of the skills that normally persuade passersby to put money in a hat. I play no instruments, and my singing has been compared to the death throes of a moose. So, I decided to go for a more conceptual approach. I would dress up like a mechanical doll and tinkle various toy instruments; enchanted Washingtonians would throw money at my feet.
Washington isn't a great city for street performers. Checking out the scene with my husband the week before I started, we saw only two entertainers: a man singing Joni Mitchell songs and strumming guitar and another playing, "Someone To Watch Over Me" on the saxophone. "My people!" I remarked.
"They're not your people," my husband replied. "They're good."
Undeterred, I went to a costume store and bought a powder-blue princess outfit, made of polyester and lint, complete with puffy sleeves, petticoat, and peplum. When I previewed it for my family, the response was not encouraging.
"This is catastrophic," said my husband, who literally shielded his eyes from the sight. "I am going to get a call from the day room at St. Elizabeth's saying I have to come sign you out."
"It's OK, Dad," said my 7-year-old daughter as she inspected me. "You can see she shaves her underarms. That means people will know she's not crazy."
I suggested that I could vastly increase the lucrativeness of this venture if I attached a large cardboard key to my back, then brought my daughter along and had her pretend to wind me up.
"You are keeping our daughter out of this," said my husband slowly. Violating this decree, I could see, would result in him starting a file labeled "custody battle."
I decided to make my first appearance at the downtown corner where Slate has its offices. For moral support, and protection in case the crowds became unruly, my editor David Plotz acted as my manager, standing a discreet distance away. He also conducted interviews about my work with the lawyers, lobbyists, regulators, and clerical workers who make up a D.C. lunchtime crowd.