Sunday, November 10, 2013
Robert Nelson, Storyteller, Pt3/4 "Doing the Chinamans laundry."
I spent almost 30 years as a comic juggler.
I wore a jesters costume most of my career and could even imitate a reasonable 16th century British accent. Yet curiously, I had never once performed at a Renaissance Faire.
I first heard about the Northern California Faire when I moved to San Francisco in the late ‘70’s. Several local juggling acts, “Fly-by Night”, “Shawn and Dave” and the infamous “Obscene Juggler”, Greg Dean had just been hired. Word was, you had to audition for the “Queen”, Phyllis Patterson. Her Northern and Southern California Faires were the beginnings of what soon would be called “the Ren Faire Circuit”. Apparently, she had stolen the idea from the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare festival. Some of “her people” saw me on the street and invited me to come up to Novato to audition for the “Queen”, herself.
I did … it was horrible. As soon as “Queen” Phyllis saw my head she said,
“Tattoo’s aren’t period … you’ll have to wear a hat”.
I was so shocked I couldn’t think clearly. Then I heard the words,
“Fuck you bitch” come out of my mouth. Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig.
Flash ahead 22 years… it’s 1999. I’m about to turn 50.
Working the streets had taken its toll. My empty calendar stares back at me … I make some calls.
I get in touch with Master Lee in New York City.
I met the “Kung Fu Comic” in Washington Square Park the early ‘80’s. He had developed his act alongside the famous asshole, Tony Vera aka “The Fireman”, Thien Phu, a very friendly and skilled Vietnamese juggler and the legendary Charley Barnett, the funniest black motherfucker to ever live (except Richard, of course).
Master Lee suggests I apply to the Baltimore Ren Faire.
“Rowbert, I’ll set you up, but first, you wanna rent half my trailer for 200 (quickly adding)… US?”
Good money, cheap rent. Say no more, say no more.
I call the Faire; many of my lifelong friends (and also Gazzo) had already worked there. They offer me a 5-week, no travel, no accommodations deal. I accept, mentioning my plans to rent Master Lee’s trailer. I heard a long pause on the other end of the line. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
Four festivals and three blown VW engines later, I arrive, at the end of a long arduous summer in Baltimore. Prophetically, during the worst rainstorm they’ve had in 50 years.
I drive into what looks like a cow pasture with a cheap, cereal box cutout castle in the middle.
I am surrounded by a moat of filthy, muddy, pierced and tattooed hippie freaks.
I guess that Elizabethan cunt I met 22 years ago had relaxed her standards a bit.
My old friends, sword-swallower Johnny Fox and magician Peter Gross, greet me in the muddy lot. Like the legendary “Puke & Snot”, Johnny had grown to be a star in the Ren-Faire world. Besides having an excellent comedy act, he was a master of sleight-of-hand (think Gazzo pre-stroke). Like Johnny, Peter was (ahem) a good friend too. At least it seemed like he was a good friend because I had allowed him to annoy me for so many years. I’ll admit that if Peter wasn’t trying to molest some prepubescent adolescent, he could be surprisingly entertaining; in an irritating sort of way.We had all performed together at numerous events together in the past and I never ceased to be amazed at how quickly Johnny could get women to sleep with him. Sort of the antithesis of Peter.I’ll always be thankful to Peter for showing me how one might easily adapt one’s act to an Elizabethan theme. Evidently, green tights stretched over a pudgy frame do the trick. In all deference to Peter, I must admit, when I first heard his masterful impersonation of a overly enthusiastic, whiney, British Jew in 1563, I was … how can I say it? … awake.
Wet and exhausted, I follow Johnny and Peter to a tree-rutted angular patch of mud next to the Porto-Johns.
They point out a 17 year old, 22 foot long corrugated, dried tobacco juice colored tin box on blocks.
You can’t imagine my joy at the prospect that this was to be my home for the next 5 weeks. I anticipated being lulled to sleep with the incessant slamming of commode doors while peacefully inhaling the intoxicating aroma of human waste.
Johnny never gets closer than the 10-foot garbage infested walkway and bids us adieu. He had already stopped looking at me and gotten real quiet. I actually think I saw him shudder as he turned to leave.
Peter, however, like a perspiring gazelle, puddle jumps knowingly from mucky clump to muddy cluster of crap. He nimbly leaps over half eaten propane tanks and masterfully negotiates the one of three steps that hasn’t rusted out. He deftly opens a door with no handle, no doorknob and no lock leaving it wide open … calculatingly.
Words alone could never describe the putrid stench that enveloped me.
It hit me like an imploded colostomy bag.
I wanted to vomit but I couldn’t find a place clean enough.
In the dim light, a truly appalling scene unfolded before me. Filthy duct tape covering broken moldy jalousies made it thankfully hard to distinguish much.
I imagined Peter, William and myself with flies in our eyes in Darfur standing behind Sally Struthers.
Up to that moment my only real experience living with a pig was when I shared a room at the Denver Buskerfest with Young Raoul. Apparently, not everyone prefers to defecate in private. But, I digress; The Young One is better suited for a story of his own.
The only light came through the cheap little windup skylight in ceiling above. Brittle now, the plastic had crumbled like a used saltine atop what was left of the perforated rusted out screen. Brownish stains encircled the fissure chandelier-like in ever expanding concentric circles.
The soaked plasterboard bubbled ominously overhead like a piñata of gunk and goo. The rain had been pouring in for so many years that the carpet below had rotted away in almost a perfect circle. The mucous laden fiber would simply dissolve to the touch (I imagined).
I guess William just walked around those holes like they were homeless people.
Only a ripped, torn, worn to shreds Naugahyde couch adorned the dark & dismal front room. It looked like a ninth grade science project gone bad. It had an oddly velour coating that on closer inspection revealed a layer of growing fur. I never saw multicolored mold before.
There was a can of Raid on the kitchen counter, empty, of course. The only chair, a greasy bucketseat. I half expected to see a NASCAR schedule poster somewhere.
Master Lee had bought the trailer 9 years ago from Johnny’s ex-wife (the 1st one). He had paid her $500 bucks Canadian after his first Halifax experience. Since that day, he had never bothered to fix anything. The electricity worked but nothing else, not even the water. All appliances had died and been left to rot.
A corroded grease covered stove was now a nest for a family of mice (one of 5, I found). A hive of wasps lived in the exhaust fan above. Inside the rust pitted refrigerator lay a bug cemetery. They were the lucky ones.I knew if I stayed in this ecological cesspit very long, I’d die as well.
I bolted back to Johnny’s trailer and begged for a one-night stay. He acquiesced, I’ll be forever thankful for that.
For the rest of the evening, I watched in awe as William, Peter and the rest of the indigents slept wherever they fell.
Most of these longhaired heathens, I was soon to find out, spent the week drinking and fornicating with whatever could provide friction. Rumor has it, the word “Skank” was coined right there at the Baltimore Re-Faire. It is unclear as to whether the speaker was referring to Master Lee, himself, or to the company he kept.
I had coupla days before shows started, so I blatantly told William my intent to disinfect the dump in lieu of rent. The first thing I did was to tack plastic sheets over the broken, cracked and split, plastic vents in the roof. It sealed the water out but the fetid air in, so I pried, pliered and wrenched the frozen gunk crusted jalousie windows open.
I then tried to focus on anything already decayed and decomposed.
Rotting, unrecognizable items were tossed indiscriminately outdoors, simply adding into the already atrocious mess. Bags of garbage were intentionally left open to give anything still alive and ambulatory a chance to escape.
I held my cool pretty good the first night. I initially pondered getting some sleep on the foul mattress in the back, until I found a desiccated condom attached to its headboard.
Six open packages littered on the floor around the bed. I never found the other 5. Instead, I wrapped myself in a plastic parka and sat upright on the recently bleached couch. My eyes stinging from the fumes, I spent hours listening to rustling noises in the dark. Back and forth, up and down, I tried to follow them with my fading flashlight. Mercifully, the rain started pounding down so hard, I heard nothing else.
I was relentless the next few days. I sprayed, brushed, wiped and swept every inch of that hellhole. I even rented a steam cleaner and attacked what was left of the rug. Before I did my first show, I had spent $117 on cleaning products, traps and pesticides. Master Lee, rightly so, never said shit to me about rent.
What the Faire billed as “comic juggler Butterfly Man” became a 4 times a day, one-way vent of my personal frustrations.
I simply couldn’t control it. I’d come out both rant barrels blazing. I might have done some juggling in there somewhere but I don’t remember any of that. I’m pretty sure anybody who saw me doesn’t either.
I ranted about mud, muck, rain and mold, all the things I had been swimming in for days.
I did a whole show about a piece of pubic hair, peppered soap I found in the one and only shower available for the hundreds of grubby, muddy hippies that lived on-site.
I took the audience on a journey uphill, through ankle deep mud, to a stained, non-shower curtained stall of pitted concrete encircled by a mucous membrane of sulfur.
I told them what it was like to shower in cold water that was 13% rust, with your shoes on.
I was closer to suicide than El Glenno Grande sharing a pitch with Bill Ferguson.
Then, just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore … a goddamn hurricane hits.Its name was “Floyd”. I don’t think it was named after that goofy barber on the Andy Griffith show. I don’t know anybody who thinks killing 77 people and making disaster areas out of 7 states is “goofy” … except maybe Hilby, but he has the luxury of being German.
Everyone bailed. I was left alone inside that place, alone I say, for three days.
I had to beg for food at what was left of the remaining hippie campsites. Something about being in a disaster brings people together. Either that, or I looked so disgusting and smelled so awful that they took me for one of their own.
Their fashion trend seemed to favor grunge with accessories of muck and slime. I swear, neither Peter nor William washed their costumes the whole time I was there.
In Master Lee’s case, the word “costume” meant the crusty, black, grimy, fake karate outfit he wore all the time.
Somehow I survived.
William’s trailer started to become inhabitable by about the end of the third week. Everything had been disinfected, scrubbed, washed or painted. I even got the water going and the gas stove working but, alas, I never did get that goddamn refrigerator to work.
I guess having lost all hope and not giving a fuck any longer does have it’s advantages because my show started getting better and better. Those two days a week were my only outlet. I remember having a strange experience that I’ve never had onstage before or after.
I found myself doing three different shows at once. It seemed tri-leveled in a way.
There was my act (to me, the most boring part), then the comments that I made about how I felt about doing it (got the most laughs), then a professional explanation of what I was doing (type of joke, reversal, understatement etc.).
Must’ve been interesting, I would’ve liked to have been there.
I was exhausted and exasperated at the end of the run but I felt good about the shows I had done (surprisingly so did the owner). I felt even better that my friends William and Peter would now have a nice clean place to invite sluts over for Sunday brunch.
Master Lee thanked me profusely. To show his deep felt appreciation as a parting gift, he bought me a small amount of cheap marijuana.The day after I left, I heard he sold the trailer to some hippie chick for $800 … US.