No Matter How Thin You Slice It3/27/14
Great little town, Seattle. Culture out the wazoo. Hammering Man! Grunge! The Space Needle! Rain! Macklemore! The Seahawks! Mountains! Oceans! Rain! No matter what your taste slurps, there's a flavor in your flavor here.
But if you're a none-of-the-above kinda kid, have we got a flavor for you: Moisture Festival! Imagine: theatrical, circus, variety, carnie and street corner entertainers, young and old, foreign and domestic, jugglers, comedians, aerialists, magicians, maniacs beyond description, gathered together to present their considerable talents in a tre funky converted brewery warehouse in Ballard, that former Scandahoovian enclave just north of town. And this goes on, not for a night, not for a week, no no no! A month, darlin'.
On any given Weds thru Sun you might enter the popcorn and beer-scented premises of Hale's Palladium to be confronted with a sword swallower, followed by a trapeze ballet, preceding a unicycle-riding juggler comedian, topped off with a musical interlude on an instrument constructed entirely from scrap metal. And that's only the first act.
There's a word for this stuff, a word that died in agony after the Second World War but was forged anew in the 60's: Vaudeville. The supreme popular entertainment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like radio, tv and the movies combined, has been to the river, washed in the waters and resurrected as a refuge for and enclave of the last brave holdouts against the rising tide of oleaginous commodification left in entertainment. That's right fokes! Not available in any store! Crashing its way into its sixth decade (not unlike myself), New Vaudeville1 or Vaudeville Nouveau or what these kids call Old New Vaudeville (and yes, there's new new vaude to contend with) keeps right on relentlessly recycling ancient jokes and reinventing stupendous feats in ever changing splendor, a peacock's tail in a kaleidoscope.
It has been my luxuriously threadbare privilege to have spent most of my adult life in association with this bizarre performing-wolf pack, a social circle somewhere between a mystery cult and a frat party with overtones of utopian politics and unabashed huxterism, founded on the foundation of The World Well Lost For Art (or maybe Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll, I dunno). We didn't run away to join the circus — we ran away and started one.
Opening week, playing trombone in the show band, I had a ringside (if slightly offside) view of the festivities. Along with the usual gang of rowdies was a perennial MF favorite, a wee pixie of a guy named Rob Williams whose stupendous feat actually was his feet — or more correctly what he did with them. Ol' Robbie boy assembles a baloney sandwich right there onstage using nothing but the pedal extremities Wha? gave him. But that's really not the trick, that's just hard. Where he really shines is in blarneying some innocent unwitting member of the audience, always a woman, into coming up and eating the sandwich.
Not what you would call an easy sell. His line? Flattery, what else? He praises the volunteer as a person who's brave and humorous and willing to try new things, whose "New Year's resolution was carpe diem, sieze the day!"
Do they bite? Do they not. Every show, Rob had 'em lined up — okay, maybe not lined up lined up but at least a few hands to choose from — to step up for a taste of jive al fresca. And every show, he went through the procedure of construction, first carefully washing his feet (with his feet), then daintily positioning the bread, expertly de-stringing the baloney slice, adding lettuce ("It's iceberg, so no nutritional value to worry about!"), cheese, mayo and mustard, then pickle ("It's crunchy, it's sweet, it's a little treat in the middle of your sandwich!"), plunging his tootsie boldly into the wide-mouthed restaurant-size jar of slices and lofting one triumphantly for the half-amused, half-revolted audience to witness. And at every show, the bite was taken, the challenge met, and another brrrave volunteer went away crowned with a wreathe of virtue and a thoughtful take-home bag.
Moisture Festival pays via the Milo Minderbinder plan — everyone gets a share. The hope is that camaraderie and perks will compensate for the lack of long green. One of the serious benefits provided by the dutiful management is dinner backstage after the show, supplied by local restaurants and typically sumptuous and plentiful, if somewhat lacking in presentation.
Sunday night, after the last show, the weary but happy ensemble trooped back to the green room, only to be confronted with the unnerving sight of half-finished packages of baloney, cheese and bread, mayo, mustard and that industrial pickle crock, along with a sign, "FREE SANDWICHES!" and under it another: "Wash your feet before you eat!"
The overwhelming response: Man, I'm not doing that shit, it's been stepped on. Ah but! But! A few of us, the brave, the humorous, the ones willing to try something new, the ones with carpe diem tattooed on their forearms, oh yes, we knew. We understood. Here was an opportunity, a path to grace and enlightenment, a chance to partake of a sacred manna, part of ceremonial festivities over many days, presented in their exalted form, put forth on the altar of Apollo that is the stage in that activity of performance that is separated so narrowly from divine ritual. Here was the challenge, the ordeal, the act!
I explained all this to Rob whilst munching away on a foot sandwich (made with my hands, thank you very much), amusement and skepticism evident on his face. When I and the sandwich were done, all he had to say was "That there is some prime pixie dust."
Perhaps I should have washed my feet after all — that night I had an awful bellyache. Despite any magical significance the meal may have had (and really, who's to say? It doesn't take a real magician to do real magic), in the end I guess it really was just a baloney sandwich.
It's an acquired taste. Good, though.
1. cit. R. Chumleigh circa 1970