Feature: Busker Hustlin’

Published July 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 6

by Dwayne Pride

Street performers bring 16th street mall to life for summer.

Noon-lunch; lots of people sitting around and he is just dancing in the midst, showing off what he does. People are laughing and talking. Smooth jazz rolls off a trumpet somewhere down the street. Then he disappears into the alley. All I could see was the handle of his silver umbrella. He returned from the alley with some kind of ‘roller-type’ stage set up. People keep trying to take his picture and he keeps hiding under his umbrella.

Then—what a surprise! He has music! It’s plugged in somewhere up the alley. It’s a little more than the average street performer. The way he carries himself, Leroy Midyette, who goes by “Jambot” on the mall, seems to be a mime. His bags are full of props. He starts putting on more make-up while “Thriller” plays from his boom-box. His face looks like a mask or statue.

Jambot entertains pedestrians on the 16th Street Mall, photo by Vinnie Vertigo.

Some lady is walking by and he trots along beside her as she keeps walking. He finally puts his bucket out for tips and gets up on the stage. Overcast skies have turned to sun. Out comes the sign, “Photo or Video $5. Money Make Me Move.”

Summertime has brought out several street performers that entertain the crowd. Most of the entertainment consists of eclectic and unique displays of talent. A harp player, magician, painter, sign twirlers, clowns on stilts and even a two-man band can be seen on the 16th Street Mall.  Many people call it a free circus on the mall, but for each of the performers it’s a living, a way to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead. “I get the money and then I move,” says one performer.

Money is obviously a major motivator in getting these performers to keep going on a daily basis, but, various acts showcase their skills and craftsmanship as a way of life as well. Normally they appear to be just everyday panhandlers, but local street performers can also get some recognition as artists.

The mall is busy as usual. A Denver VOICE vendor is yelling around the light rail at Stout. The trumpet player is still belting out his song. Some girls from CSU are playing flutes across the street trying to raise money to go to New York City.

Now Jambot puts on the shades. All of his moves are robotic. One of his finest is a lean that seems like he can touch the ground. He is really a dancer. He used to be an understudy for a guy named Frisco. The audience reaction is what he says motivated him to become a street performer. He likes to help people and feels like he can do that through his performance. He sees his job almost messianically.

“It’s not easy,” he says. “I have to preach the word. If I don’t preach the word he’s gonna hold me accountable. I pray for people if they need healing. Basically I like helping people. You know whatever the problem or situations might be. I’m there for the people.”

There are a couple of kids checking him out. Jambot is just sitting still with his umbrella; perfectly still. The kids pull out some cash and hold it in his face. No movement.

People keep coming by. Walking back and forth. He doesn’t invite them in for a picture. One man walks by and says, “I tell you the dude is weird isn’t he?” There is a little crowd. Another lady asks, “How much money will make you move?” Two dollars will do. All of her kids start getting happy and she puts the money in the bucket. He turns the music on and begins to act like a robot. They really like it.

The crowd is bigger and people are laughing, making comments. Lots of kids have stopped by. It’s a moment of success in a hit or miss job market.

Down the mall a bit, another guy that calls himself Skip the Amazing Blockhead Contortionist sits, ready to drive a handful of nails into his head. Skip is known for hammering nails into his nose. The nails are 5-inches long. He just bought a Nintendo DS with the money he makes.

Skip used to be with Circus Discordia for a summer. He traveled along the West Coast, living in places like Santa Rosa and Portland. He dropped out when they went to Seattle.

When he’s is not doing his act on the streets he flies a sign around town. His sign says, POOR BROKE DESPERATE.  It’s one of the most noticeable things about these performers: the changes they go through on a daily basis. Seeing them from one day to the next proves that it really isn’t an easy profession. Most of them are poor. Their lifestyles are nomadic. Some have substance abuse problems. Many of them have had problems with the police for performing, panhandling, and other petty crimes.

I followed up with Skip after a week. I went back to see how he was doing. Skip pawned his Nintendo. He says he is hoping to make $18 so he can get it back. He has a blank look of worry on his face. So far he has not had an audience. A few people come closer. Skip’s act comes to life. The small crowd grabs more peoples’ attention. Now the audience has grown. People are stopping, staring, smiling.

“That looks painful,” someone says as Skip hammers a nail into his nose.

I asked him how he was so far? “Ahh… I’m alright. I made a nickel,” he says.

”Are you serious, after all of those people?” I retort.

Then two kids on skateboards come up to him and say, “Hey can you do that trick with your nose again?” They watch him impatiently, smile and smack each others’ hands, leave some change, and say—“cool.” •