Sunday, October 27, 2013
Robert Nelson, storyteller, Pt 1 of 4. 'The Infinite Crasher '
The Infinite Crasher
In 1993, Markus Marconi had an asthma attack and died while sleeping inside his van near the pitch where he worked in Munich. In his seven short years as a street performer, he had become a star throughout Europe. In his honor, the "Markus Marconi Award" is given to the favorite busker in Holland's Orenjeboom Festival every year.
This story is for him...
In 1985 I was in Oahu on my way to the 1st Hawaiian Juggling Festival over here on the Big Island. Waldo (of the Waldo-Woodhead Show), Benji Marantz (Mountain Mime/One-Ring Circus), Dan “ The Piano Juggler” Menendez and myself were walking down Waikiki. There were no street acts out there at all but there was this kid selling balloons ... that kid was Markus Marconi.
As we were walking by this kid picks up 3 balls and juggles for just a second ... nothing fancy. I figure he recognizes one of us since we were all performers but it turned out he did the same thing for everybody who went by. I told Waldo & Benji to "watch this..." and I go up to this obviously local kid and say, "Wow, I always wanted to learn how to juggle ... can you teach me?"
So Markus starts to teach me the basic cascade while Dan, Benji & Waldo look on … I quickly realize that I am just being an asshole if I continue on with this sham so I decide to introduce the others and myself. Markus seems surprised … he says he has never met another juggler, let alone four professionals. As he is speaking his partner walks over … his name is John and he is really an amateur magician also raised in Hawaii ... together they scrape by on what they can make on Waikiki. I find out later, Markus uses his share to help support his aging grandmother.
In the course of the conversation I mention that we are all flying over to the Big Island for the 1st Hawaiian Juggling Convention and give him the contact info. @ Belly Acres.
Cut to the last day of the festival … one week later …Hilo side of the Big Island (lower Puna)… myself and seven other juggling acts have spent a glorious week swimming at the black sand beach, skinny dipping in the warm champagne ponds and taking midnight treks to the lava flow … I think we even juggled a bit … I was pretty stoned the whole time, so I don’t remember much.
What I do remember was Markus showing up on the last day. He walks up and does what becomes his signature greeting to me for the next 7 years. He gives me a slight nod up with ever widening eyes … he says nothing. Just the head nodding up once … not down … hmmm, I thought, interesting choice.
I was helping the convention director, Graham Ellis, prepare for the final event, an evening show for all the local people. We would all be leaving the following day; this was our way of saying “aloha”.
I was pretty busy with my emcee duties when Markus walked up giving me his signature nod and saying nothing. After a slightly less than an uncomfortable moment, I asked him if he would like to perform in the show. He says nothing but he nodded up, I took that as a “yes”.
He said he had never performed before so I suggested he eat an apple (a sure crowd pleaser) to Weird Al Yankovitch’s “Eat it” … he nodded up.
Well, for the first time ever in front of a big crowd, Markus killed … to be honest, we all did. The locals loved us. My god, how could they not! … seven professional acts and one local boy for the admission price of a coupla coconuts and some tea leaves. Dat Puna butter, brah? No act, da kine, for real?
After the show everything got cloudy quickly and I remember nothing much else except giving Markus my business card saying, “If you’re ever in San Francisco give me a call. “ … this was my mistake; I have no one to blame but myself.
Less than two weeks later there was a knock at my door at 210 Clayton Street in San Francisco. It was Markus … he gave me the nod up, so I invited him in.
He had not called… he didn’t say why he was there … he didn’t say anything about how long he was going to stay … he said almost nothing. He let me do most all the talking; occasionally throwing his head up slightly and bulging his already quite round eyes.
My life had turned hectic since my return from Hawaii. My landlady Bea Levine had decided to evict me because I had let a “teenager” (as she put it) stay in my flat while I was in Hawaii.
The old Victorian had creaky floors and she had lived underneath a crappy juggler already for 3 years, so I guess she was a bit skittish to begin with. So, when Dave Rave, the crazy new kid in town from Copenhagen, threw a wild ass party at my pad while I was away in Hawaii… well, it put the ol’ biddy right over the edge. She came out screaming everyday about that “teenager” and his party … ad nauseum.
In the middle of this Markus moved up into my attic … a space as big as my entire flat but with no walls … it’s only entrance a small closet with a wooden ladder.
Quietly, Markus settled in while my life became a whirlwind of legal preparation to prevent her from kicking me out. Since I was a street performer with no visible means of support, the American Civil Liberty Union decided to take my case under advisement. I represented myself “in pro per” in court… I ended up losing but it took the bitch 8 months and some legal fees to get me out.
Really the best part was that I didn’t have to pay rent the whole time … legally. When I lost, however, she won a “judgment” of 2 grand for back rent which I didn’t pay until I tried to buy a house many years later … that shit follows you around. Strange when I think back on it though… Markus … the judgment … both following me around for the next seven years … hmmm.
After I lost (of course) the case, I figured Markus would leave, but he went nowhere. I moved all my stuff out of there and into Wheeler Cole’s (High Street Circus) pad around the corner on the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. Markus stayed … even when they turned the electricity off … Markus stayed.
This is just the beginning of the legacy of “The Infinite Crasher”… just the beginning.
During the eviction or “Unlawful Detainer” court case preparation, I had stumbled across the fact that my landlady was going to have to follow the same legal procedures to throw Markus out as she did me. I told him to give it a try … he did … he stayed 3 more months … serves the mustard seed eating old cunt right.
It had been quite awhile since Markus had moved into my place. Whatever money he had brought with him had run out long ago.
He got a job working the late-late shift at McDonalds so he could eat for free. Markus started to gain weight … bigger and bigger each trans-fat laden week. I started to doubt the security of the rickety wooden ladder to the attic.
After packing all my crap into boxes (including a dismantled 1959 Morris Minor Pickup truck), and moving all of it into 2 rooms of a 7 room flat around the corner @ Wheeler’s, I went gallivanting off to Europe.
Markus continued to watch the crème de la crème of street performers down at the wharf while I was gone. I picture him now, upstairs in my attic, alone, in the dark, sitting on his ever-expanding semi-Hawaiian ass, dreaming about becoming a street performer.
When I returned, Markus had managed to move into my portion of Wheelers flat … it was nothing short of amazing the way people took care of that guy … at least me, anyway … and I hate everybody.
Shortly after I arrived, Markus told me he was ready to perform his first solo street show. He asked me to come watch his audition at the Cannery. All this time he had been writing notes to himself every day … sometimes jokes …sometimes ideas for bits … sometimes tricks he needed to learn … all in those cheap black & white speckled school notebooks.
Almost the first words out of my mouth when Markus arrived in the city had been, “the difference between an amateur and a professional is a dollar sixty-nine cent notebook” ... Markus might not have said much …but, apparently, he was listening.
His first show at the Cannery sucked … it was really awful considering all the thought he had put into it … I felt really bad for him when it was over. He looked like he was ready to cry. He had stolen bits from just about every act out there and tried to perform juggling feats onstage that had taken all of us years to achieve. It probably was slightly more devastating to perform than it was to watch.
Since we were mostly alone at the end anyway, I pulled Markus aside and sat slightly away from him. He looked like he was made out of water. I kept my distance because I feared, should he inadvertently nod, I would get pelleted with giant tears and flop sweat.
We talked … actually; I did most of the talking. I told him what I thought people wanted from him … “it wasn’t tricks”, I said (he had gotten pretty good at juggling). “Tricks”, I said, “get between you and the audience” … if you MUST do Something, then only do things you can do in your sleep … keep the connection.” What people WANT is for them to be able to see a piece of YOU in what you do … show them who YOU ARE!”
Given that he was much rounder now, I suggested he try being somewhat jolly, although I’m not sure exactly what jolly means … never having felt that particular emotion in my entire life.
He needed an act, I thought, that not only suited his look and quiet demeanor but also looked professional.
“We should make some prop cases together”, I offered.
I recommended we start working on his act by making (me) a “professional prop case”.
He worked, I talked.
I rambled on about what I had seen work on the streets here in the city. More importantly, I also told him what I had seen that didn’t work. Things like, “borrowing” another act’s material. Beginners seem to always make the mistake of thinking that material someone else does will work for them. The problem with that is that they don’t know yet who they 'appear to be' to the audience. They only know who they 'think they are' … good luck doing a show where you screw with peoples perceptions. It might be wise to save that shit for the seasoned professionals.
Sure, starting out, one might be tempted to grab somebody else’s lines because “they work for that person”. But, realistically, if you think about it, this is way dumb. Why? Because you are putting a whole layer of crap that isn’t you between you and THEM … that's why dumb ass.
Think about it … people are pretty stupid … they can’t figure out what you look like if you wear a mask, right? How can you expect them to figure out what they like or dislike about what you do up there on stage if you keep putting other peoples stuff in front of them to cloud their decision-making. In the beginning you are listening … the audience is doing most of the talking … with their hands.
At the time, I didn’t even know I had an opinion about performing and really this was the first time I tried to help anybody else out.
There wasn’t really anybody like me when I started, so I didn’t have anybody to copy. Funny thing about that … there still isn’t.
However, in just a few short years, I had seen so many newcomers to the street that I observed first hand the realities of street performing. The time I shared with Markus helped me help other people for many years to come.
The way I saw it, since Markus was pudgy and looked like a cuddly bear, why not play that card … I mean, I looked like a creepy insect and it worked for me.
Lucky for Markus, The Cannery, the Anchorage and even Ghirardelli (shopping centers) had lost most all their top acts to Pier 39. They were hungry, Markus was hungry. He was more than eager to fill any timeslot. He hit the streets hard. I heard somewhere that’s what it takes.
Life at Wheeler’s got too communal for my taste, so I rented a whole house for myself in Bernal Heights. It was great … a beautiful sunny backyard with an extra room with half a bath off the garage.
Yeah, I said it, a garage … in San Francisco… no shit? … mine? … No one else can park here? … really? Really!
As I was moving the last of my stuff out of Wheeler’s, Markus showed up right after a full day at the wharf. Wheeler was throwing me a small going away party and I was all excited about moving to new place. Markus seemed even more quiet than usual. I knew something was wrong when he didn’t give me the usual nod up. He looked weathered and worn. He had just pulled off ten shows that day.
Actually, beneath his shabby attire, Markus looked pretty good. He had lost the extra weight (6+ shows a day’ll do that). He might have been healthy but his costume was beat to shit. His “costume” was really whatever he was wearing and his red high-top converse sneakers. He did his 1st show in them and never performed without them.
It had been almost a year since Markus had been punching out shows down at the wharf and his sneakers showed it. What was once red was now barely pink. Thick ribbed soles had worn paper-thin. A long slice along each side threatened to release a flap of rubber at any minute.
I pulled Markus aside to see what was wrong. This quiet man, who had never said so much as a peep to me in almost 2 years, started to talk.
He told me about growing up with no parents in Hawaii, always moving from home to home. He told me about this old woman who took him in more than anyone else. He called her his “grandmother” though there was no blood relation. Markus had no idea where he came from. He had no one place he called home.
I know I am a self absorbed son-of-a-bitch. I’m sure I was even more of one then than I am now, but I was really touched by his story. Either that of I was just stunned to hear him say more than two words that were joined together before.
Markus told me about Hawaii and a thing called “ohana”. I think the closest word in English would be “family”. People, whether related or not, if they were close to you, they became your family, he explained. Houses, whether you owned them or not, he said, became your home.
He told growing up in Hawaii he never had (or needed) a pair of shoes. Then he looked down at the beat up sneakers on his feet. “These are my home”, he said, “I take them everywhere I go”.
I don’t know what came over me. I must have had more to drink than I thought or maybe all the drug taking I had been doing for so many years just caught up with me. The words, “I have an extra room in my new place”, drooled out from between my lips despite all my efforts to shut the fuck up for once in my life.
As we were getting in my van, Markus tied his beater red sneakers together and threw them over a lamp pole right outside of Wheelers pad. They were the first … the first of many to come.
Markus moved in before I even had a chance to memorize my address… he took the room next to the garage.
Markus’s act became unlike any other show on the wharf. His unique approach was to do kiddie humor. Targeting the children rather than the paying adults seemed to work well for him. He told me it made him feel safer too with all those kids all around him. Gee, that must be some feeling … all I ever think about is how to make them cry.
Those were good days for Markus, he gained the respect of all the acts in the city … everyone affectionately called him “Infinite” as a nickname… he even found love (and all the tangled webs involved).
The best thing that happened to him during this time was an offer from Japan. Six weeks in Osaka making balloons for some event company … I was extremely jealous. He took his new home with him. The old one he left dangling on a telephone wire in Bernal Heights.
I didn’t see Markus for sometime after that but I heard he was killing over in Europe. I even heard a great story about him performing in Russia that I’ll share with you all sometime.
I saw Markus last at a Thanksgiving Day party In San Francisco, it was just months before he died. As I walked into the living room Markus was sitting on an oversized sofa with a pretty girl on either side of him. I’ll always remember how I was shocked that he looked so different. He seemed so handsome and cool, but it was obviously the same guy.
I hadn’t seen him for quite awhile so I walked over to where he was sitting and stood right in front of him and the girls. He looked up at me, his eyes so confident, his manner so self-assured.
“I hear the money’s in Belgium & Bern”, I said.
Markus looked up. His big eyes widened, then, he gave me the nod.
I took that as a “Yes”.