Back when I was a street performer in New Orleans, I knew this kid named Nate who rode the rails and wandered in and out of town as the mood struck him. Nate was a heavy drinker. He panhandled obsessively and was always coming up with some new angle to try out on the tourists. Jokes for a quarter, dollar-for-three-quarters, human statue, human jukebox, shoe shines, and I'll bet I can tell you where you got them shoes; Nate knew them all. He wasn't stingy with his booze, and we hung out often.
One day, as I was sitting in front of Grandad's General Store playing the banjo, Nate walked up with a plastic bag in his hand and a big smile on his face. As he got closer, I saw that his bag appeared to be full of live insects, “Dude, you're gonna love my new act, Mike!”
“What the fuck is that? Have you been collecting cockroaches?”
“They're live crickets. I got them at the pet store for five dollars. You're supposed to feed them to your frogs or something. I'm going up to tourists and telling them I'll eat them for a dollar,” he said, and then waited with a sly grin as he anticipated my response.
“Hahahaha! Holy shit, dude. That is best idea you've ever had. I can't believe you're the only one who's thought of it.”
“Well, actually, I got it from an old homebum in Key West, but he did it with snails. He couldn't afford crickets.”
“Are they going down smooth?”
“No,” he admitted, “They're making me sick.”
“You made any money?”
“Not much. I got four dollars but it's kind of a hard sell.”
“Let me see your technique.”
He went into his shtick, and I saw his problem instantly. He stood at the end of the curb asking people in a subdued, conversational tone, “Hey, you want to see me eat a cricket for a dollar?” the same way you might ask someone for the time of day. He had come up with a great concept, no doubt of that. He just needed a more skillful raconteur to push it for him, “Hey Nate, I got an idea, man. Why don't you let me be your barker? I'll convince people to pay the money, and you can eat the crickets. We'll split the take 50/50.”
He was predictably reluctant at first, “Well, I don't know, that doesn't seem fair. I'm the one eating the crickets after all.”
“Look man, I'll play the banjo and get all up in people's faces. You know I can work this crowd. Let's just try it for an hour and see how we do.”
“Yeah, I guess you're right.” he said, pretending to relent.
“Alright! Let's go up to Sidney's and spend your cricket earnings on beer. We gotta be loose if we're gonna sell this routine.”
We got the beer and set up in front of the Central Grocery which was just closing up. The already disappointed tourists milling about were aghast to see us approaching, bedraggled beyond the understanding of civilized men, bag of crickets in tow. They swiftly disbursed and we set about developing our act.
It came easy. When your core idea is solid, the window dressing tends to fall into place. Within a few minutes I had a song ready to go, and Nate had been formally rechristened: “Gnarly Nate, The Cricket Eating Crazy Man / crickets taste great, just ask Gnarly Nate / Gnarly Nate, the cricket eating fool / he's got cricket pieces in his drool / Booze and crickets make him feel great / so give one dollar to Gnarly Nate.”
“That's perfect dude. I love it. I'm fuckin' 'Gnarly Nate,' yo!”
“Yeah, you know, maybe you should try to dance around a little bit.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You want me to eat the crickets AND fucking dance around?”
“OK, OK. Jesus Christ, it was just an idea. Don't go primadonna on me just because you're a star now.”
So, Nate just stood there as I sang the song, and after awhile a small gaggle of tourists stopped to listen. I immediately jumped into the pitch, “Howdy there folks! Are you having a good time? Say, I'll tell you what: My friend here is an escaped mental patient, and we're trying to raise money to buy him some Thorazine. Without it he starts slurring his speech and running into walls. It's a gruesome and tragic spectacle.”
Showing that he had some theatrical instincts after all, Nate started babbling incoherently and trying to walk through the doors of the Central Grocery, which were chained shut. I continued, “Now, I know you folks are anxious to get shit-faced and buy some tit hats, but if you'll give us just a moment of your time, I promise we'll show you something truly amazing.”
“What are the crickets for?” (I knew we had them.)
“I'm glad you asked. Now, here in New Orleans there are lots of unusual things to see, but I'm going to tell you right now that my friend, Gnarly Nate, The Cricket Eating Crazy Man, is prepared to eat live crickets, presently, for your entertainment, for just one American dollar.”
“That guy will eat a cricket if we pay you a dollar?” said the guy, warming up to the idea.
“That's absolutely correct sir, and what's more, we are offering you an incredible deal. For five dollars he'll eat, not five, but ten crickets. You get two crickets for the price of one!”
Nate gave me a dark look but stayed in character. The tourons were yucking it up and busting out their cameras. It looked like Gnarly Nate was about to have to put his crickets where his mouth was.
The guy handed me the five and I put it in my pocket. He gave a depraved cackle and said, “So is he going to eat the crickets all at once?”
Nate writhed around and made sounds of obvious protest. Everyone laughed. I was relieved because that was the moment when things could have gotten complicated. It's much easier to do your act when you have an audience that's willing to play along. Also, I felt compassion for my friend who faced a grim destiny as it was. I knew which one of us was Tom Sawyer and which was Huck Finn. In the most conciliatory of tones, I said, “Sir, I can't, in good faith, allow my friend here to eat ten crickets all at once. Are we not, after all, civilized men? How about he eats them one or two at a time? That way you can each get a picture with him in the act.”
“That'll be fine.”
It was show time. I started playing the song again, and Nate started popping the crickets into his mouth two at a time. He chewed them up and held out his tongue so everyone could see and take pictures. The best part was when a woman stopped and said, “That's horrible!” and I said, “Oh, come on. They were just going to get eaten by frogs anyway.”
I'm not going to lie, it was kind of anti-climactic, but that's how it is with street performance. The unicycle isn't all that impressive unless you have a funny guy on top of it, or as in this case, a funny guy and a guy who eats insects for money.
After the macabre affair had finally concluded and the tourons had wandered off into the night, Nate took a swig of beer and spit it out into the gutter trying to flush away the detritus. I laughed unreservedly, “Holy shit dude. I can't believe you did it. How did they taste?”
“Not good.” he said ruefully, but he was laughing too. It had been a career high for both of us.
“Are you ready to eat ten more?”
“Actually, I don't really want to eat anymore crickets. Why don't we just go get a six pack from the A&P with that five dollars in your pocket?”
“What are you going to do with the rest of them? Save them till tomorrow and eat them dead?”
“Look man, I don't want to talk about it. Let's just let them go.”
He didn't have to twist my arm. We went to the neutral ground and let the rest of the crickets go in the bushes around the statue of Joan of Arc, then we walked and got a six of Cobra at the A&P and went to a stoop in Pirate's Alley.
“So what are you going to do for the rest of the night?” he asked.
“I'm going to go back to Grandad's General Store and play.”
“I don't know Mike, you seem kind of fucked up.”
“Well, if I get too wasted to play I'll just go back to Joan and find some of those crickets on the ground.”
Nate jumped off the stoop, ran to the edge of the church courtyard, and spewed forth a geyser of malt liquor and cricket corpses, making it nearly halfway to the base of Touchdown Jesus. Without missing a beat I jumped up and started playing, “...Booze and crickets make him feel great / So give one dollar to Gnarly Nate. ”