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.
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.
Then a huge bus slowly pulled up in front of the museum. I got so excited—I could harass each tourist into dropping money into my hat as they disembarked. I started jumping up and down and waving wildly at the bus. It stopped in front of me, the doors opened, and the bus driver gave me a long look. Then she leaned toward me and said, with a note of panic in her voice, "Are you our tour guide?"
I sadly shook my head. I realized at that moment that I was not a true performer. A true performer would have nodded yes and led the crowd into the museum. Now, that would have been art.
In Human Guinea Pig, I take strange jobs, sample peculiar therapies, pick up odd hobbies, and generally try the activities that my colleagues have always wondered about but don't have the guts to do themselves. (Can you make money on an Internet get-rich scheme? What would a plastic surgeon do to your face? Can anyone be a telephone psychic?)
Is there something you've always wanted to do but were too scared or embarrassed to try? Ask the Human Guinea Pig to do it for you. E-mail me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.Thanks to reader Dustin Dopps for suggesting this assignment.