They were surrounded. From afar, I couldn’t tell what all of the hullabaloo was about. I moved closer and stopped on the sidewalk.
Across the street, a man wearing a red jumpsuit was teetering on the top of a ten-foot ladder. The ladder was free-standing. With incredible strength and skill, the man was balancing on the ladder while his team member held a unicycle—also ten feet tall—upright in front of him.
This wasn’t your usual street performance. I walked across the street.
The men had on headsets and were bantering back and forth, joking with the audience. “Don’t try this at home, folks,” said the man on the ground. “Try i’ at school—then you can sue your teachers if you ge’ hurt,” said the man in red. He had a thick British accent. The audience laughed and gasped as he began “walking” the ladder forward—arms pumping at his sides as though he were running—and moved from the ladder to the unicycle, torso falling forward, then backward, trying to find his balance on the seat.
When he was stable, a woman in black moved the ladder to the side.
“What’s the matter?” said the man on the ground.
“It’s a bit windy,” said the man in red. He pointed to his friend’s baggy pants. They were flapping in the breeze.
“Oh?” said the man on the ground, sarcastically.
“I’m just saying.”
“This is San Francisco.”
“I know, but . . .”
“These people are wanting a funny show, and here you are talking about the wind!”
“Have you seen how tall this is?” The man in red motioned as though to offer the unicycle to his partner. He began spinning around in circles.
“Oh, forget it.”
“You started it.”
“Anyway, folks . . .” The man on the ground was not to be put off. “Seriously, now. Don’t try this at home. We do this all the time. We’re pro-fessionals.”
The man was flapping his hands like a bird. “That’s why we work on the street.“
The audience laughed.
The man on the ground pulled three batons out of a bag. “Have you ever seen someone juggle?”
The crowd nodded.
“Good, well then we can just skip this part, then.”
“Just kidding. Here we go . . . But you gotta help him out! Everyone put your hands together!”
As we watched, and attempted to clap (the man in red called us “white people”), Awolnation‘s “Sail” came over the loudspeaker, and the man on the ground proceeded to throw the man in red first batons and then one-and-a-half-foot (45 cm) knives, both of which he juggled adroitly atop the unicycle . . .
At the end of the show, the performers told the audience that they were a brother and sister from England, and a crazy guy from Massachusetts, who were studying acrobatics in San Francisco—at one of only five schools in the world—and that they did these shows to help pay their way through school. And my heart immediately jumped in my throat . . . I didn’t have any cash. But I wanted to give something. These guys deserved it! And so I rummaged in my wallet for some coins—I couldn’t leave without giving anything—but I left feeling . . .
I walked as far as Ghirardelli Square—jostling through crowds, eying crab and fish tanks, wondering if I was the only person wandering around San Francisco alone that day—before turning around. I had to get back to my car, which was parked at the opposite end of the Embarcadero, and I knew that I was getting sunburned. As I got close to Pier 39, however, I suddenly had an idea. The man on the ground and lady in black were still in their spot. There was an ATM directly in front of me . . .
The man from the ground (whose name, I learned at the end of the show, was Kevin) looked surprised.
“I . . . I didn’t have any cash earlier, but I wanted to let you know how impressed I was by your show.” I held out a $20 bill.
“Wow. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“So, uh,” I was struggling to think of something to say, “your school is right here in San Fran?”
“I have a similar dream—writing—so I think that what you guys are doing is awesome.”
“Thank you,” said the woman who was sitting right by. “We really enjoy it.”
“Riding? Like horses?” asked Kevin.
“No, no—writing. Like,” I made a motion like I was writing on paper. “I . . . I know that it’s not exactly the same, but just the fact that you’re out here going after what you love is really great to me.”
“Thanks,” said Kevin. He looked tired, and the wind was making our conversation difficult.
“Anyway . . . Well, the best of luck to you.”
“Thank you, and good luck to you, too,” said Kevin.
I left wishing I were better at making small talk, but happy to have been able to make my small contribution. $20 isn’t much, though maybe it seems a lot to give to a group of street performers. But, somehow, I didn’t mind. The world needs more dreamers, and these dreamers had put on one hell of a show.
Apparently these guys are pretty well known around Pier 39. Here is a video clip from 2011. I guess one of the brothers was missing in action the day I saw them.