Kung-Fu Fire Eaters
Amplified breathing floats through the little park from a small speaker hidden behind a tree. “I…am…Masterly…” the voice says.
It’s summer, hot, and the leaves in Washington Square Park twinkle their silver undersides. I lean against a tree trunk and wipe my brow as a pair of identical twin breakdancers tumbles to a halt and passes around the hat. The voice comes again, this time from a tall man breathing into a clip-on microphone. The crowd jumps as he lets out a kung-fu screech—“Yeeee-ahhh!” He holds a plywood board over his forehead—first close, then far, then close again—making a series of concentrated karate-faces at it, “Yeeee-ahhh!” Then he straightens up and tosses the board away. “Yeah right.” Long kamikaze hair blows across copper skin stretched over broad cheekbones. He could be Cherokee. Or Tibetan. Or Ninja.
“I...am…Masterly...” he says again, to an audience of mostly tourists, and pulls out a torch, a tin of lighter fluid, and holds aloft a stick of flame. “Now, when I spread my arms, I want you all to applaud. Or else...” He walks past the people waving fire under their noses. They back away in unison. “Hey, I’m just one Chinese guy, I’m not gonna hurt you.” He pauses. “It’s not like I’m black or something.”
The breakdancers, busy zipping tightly bound wads of cash into fanny-packs, have heard it a hundred times, as well as the predictable audience laughter. They happily continue filling out deposit slips for the bank. The more people Masterly draws in, the more they’ll have for their next show. They alternate gigs like dominoes, riffing off each other and pretending they aren’t, acting as if this whole performance were happening serendipitously, and that this kind of thing always happens in the vibrant ethnic stew that is New York.
Masterly studies the breakdancers, fanny-packs slung about their waists, and points to the t-shirts they’ve got tied around their heads to ward off the blazing sun. “Going for the Aunt Jemima look?” The audience dares to laugh, a little. One breakdancer flashes a decorative gold tooth and gives Masterly a cool thumbs up. Kung Fu Fire Eaters and Acrobat Black Men.
Flaming stick aloft, Masterly approaches a sallow-skinned teenager with dark circles under his eyes and an iron rod rammed through his nose. “Where you from?” he demands.
The boy looks around, then points to his chest. “Detroit.”
“How old are you?”
Masterly is not impressed. “What are you doing in New York?”
The boy shrugs like he’s trying on a loose coat. “Hangin’ out.”
I feel sorry for him.
“Hangin’ out,” Masterly repeats, then swivels on his heel and cuts a bee-line back to center. “Right. That’s cool man. See you in the shelters.” He addresses the crowd. “Watch out, kids. One summer turns to ten, next thing you know you’re on welfare. Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I come from the Bronx. You know the Bronx? Nah, your travel guides all circle it and put a red bar across.” He holds up the torch, “But—I…am…Masterly…” and spreads his arms as if gathering the spirit of the audience. Waits for something that doesn’t come. He drops his arms and very slowly puts down the torch. I get ready.
Masterly picks up a plastic water-Uzi. “To show you how we do things in New York…if when I spread my hands you don’t applaud, you get soaked. Got it? Now, once more: I…am…Masterly…” He spreads his arms. A faint scattering of applause, like random crickets. Masterly sighs and walks up to a tall blonde Eurotrash man pooching his eyebrows at an upside-down subway map. He pumps the Uzi and squirts the man right in the vitals. A wet splotch bleeds from his gut. “You can’t clap?” Masterly says. “I know, I know. It’s not in your culture. Hey, zeig heil, man.” The German looks stupid, staring at his wet t-shirt. It’s always a man. Masterly has ethics. “Now let’s try it again,” he says. “I...am...Masterly...” And he spreads his hands. Everyone applauds, and Masterly blinks at the Uzi. “Funny how this shit works.”
I check my watch and reach into my bag for a banana. I bought three this morning. I’m down to my third. Masterly tosses away the Uzi and picks up the torch again, surprised to find it has gone out. Comically, he studies it, wipes the sweat from his brow, clears his throat, and re-lights it. He holds up the lighter. “From faraway China…town,” he says. Then, “From a Korean fruit stand—” he holds up an apple. “And from the brothers here—” he winks at the breakdancers and holds up a knife—actually a small sword, glinting in the sunshine. I peel my banana as Masterly begins juggling, with effort, as if the items were heavy. Arm muscles flex as he tosses each item between scissored legs. The knife comes awfully close to his— “Shit. Mmf. Fuck. Ummf. Cut off half my dick, ungf, be a white guy umf—” He spots me peeling the banana. “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking—ungf. He’s yellow on the outside, umf. White on the inside, ungf.” Everybody laughs, but I keep peeling, pretending I only understand Azerbadjian. I wait a beat, then look up mid-peel with a blank expression.
Three times now, and Masterly still does not pursue it. He does not squirt me with the Uzi. Our scene is over and he doesn’t glance my way again. Instead, he does some fancy tosses with the apple, taking bites until it is a ragged core, and I feel sad. The sun is going down, this is his last gig. He stops juggling, catches everything one-two-three, walks right up to the junkie from Detroit who is apparently going on the nod, and tosses the apple core into his lap. “Next time,” he says, “use a clean needle.”
I swallow the last bite of banana as Masterly goes into a less-audible riff with a Swedish man trying to defend the junkie’s right to self-expression, and look at my stomach. A shadow moves across it. I shift. So does the shadow.
“Got to give you a ticket,” the man says, and I am confused. “You’re sitting in the smile-zone looking way too serious.” He’s about twenty-three, corn-fed and robust, clearly Midwestern, with a sun-cast blonde halo around his sturdy head. His blue suit has a plastic name tag pinned to his lapel: Luke, from Christian Spiritual Technologies. His ice-blue eyes scrutinize mine. “Ever wonder about God’s love machine?”
I dislodge a piece of banana from between my teeth. “Look, Luke,” I say. “I’m from New York. So just—” I mime a solid brick wall between us.
He taps the neat row of multicolored pens lined up in his breast pocket. “We’re all from the same place.” Then reaches out to touch my shirt. “The machine.”
I slap the banana peel into his hand. “Tourists,” I say, and gesture to the crowd. “Go bother one of them.”
“They’re not as pretty as you,” he says, and hands me his card. Miguel Arañas, MD crossed out and Luke written above it in ballpoint pen. He tosses the banana peel away. It lands in the grass like a broken lily. “What’s your name?” he says, but I don’t answer. He waves a hand before my face. “Yes? No? Maybe?” Then cups a hand to my ear. “Breaker one-nine.”
I look up, as if shaken out of a dream. “Mary,” I say.
Luke nods. “Mary is God’s love machine.” He holds up his palm. “Holiest on high.” Rivulets of sweat trickle down his neck and into his collar. I press my palm to his. The skin is thick and callused, but smooth, like he’s been doing farm work all his life but has recently stopped.
The heat makes me shiver. “I’m on fire.”
He steps closer to me. “Burn.”
Over his shoulder there’s a commotion. The Swedish man is making an argument for socialism, and Luke takes advantage of the diversion. He walks away, then spins around. He licks his lips. He can already taste the smoke.
The Swedish man is the epitome of Nordic calm, and Masterly uses this against him. “Of course, in Scandinavia, people don’t die of hunger. Just boredom. And now—” he says, pointing to a stack of plywood, “I will set these boards on fire and break them with”—he holds out his arm and imitates Bruce Lee—“ah-my hand-ahh… But first, I’ll need a volunteer.” The build-up to his finale is, if you count actual minutes, basically his whole act. He sidles up to a cluster of stocky men with red faces, all clutching paper bags with strangled necks. “Where you guys from?”
One says, “Ireland.”
“Ah, that explains the...” Masterly wafts a hand in front of his nose as if sniffing an odor, and peeks into the man’s brown paper sack. “Didn’t need the lighter fluid, did I? Could’ve just wrung out your liver.”
A woman with a Lord & Taylor shopping bag looks offended. Sensitive bitch. On the subway coming over here, when the train stopped at Chinatown, some guy looked at the old Asian man sitting next to me and said, “Get out, chink.”
I laugh as Masterly plucks a pink-faced man from the cluster. “So, Paddy. You smoke?”
The man glances around. “I’m…uh…thinking of starting.”
The audience roars, and Masterly gives him a nod. “You’re good.” He turns to the crowd. “Yeah, real fuckin’ good. Can’t get the English off your backs, but you can stand there with the Guinness and crack jokes.” Masterly lifts his torch and relights it. “This,” he says, “is 300 degrees of pure fire. I’ll make it a little more flammable by moving closer to the Irish guy. That’s why the Irish don’t smoke,” he says. “They burst into flames.” The audience is afraid to laugh. “Do you guys speak English? Okay listen carefully. If you don’t laugh, I will torch a small child.” They remain silent. “Just kidding. They only do that in China.” He pauses. “To the Tibetans.”
I spot an old man sitting on a bench. Like the Asian guy in the subway, he is withered, his brown face placid. His cheekbones are impossibly high and his rheumy eyes blink mildly at the setting sun. A red plastic bag filled with groceries from Chinatown sits collapsed by his feet.
Masterly nudges his half-drunk volunteer, “Hey Irish guy. Do this—” and repeats his kung-fu scream: “Yeeee-ahhh!”
The Irish guy screams: “Yeeeeah…haw!”
Masterly’s eyebrows rise. “A little Texas twang there. What’s your name, sir?”
The man clears his throat. “James.”
“Try it again James: Yeee-ahhh!”
“Wow, you really are drunk. Hey, fuck the English, right?”
Luke is watching me, two eyes blinking from around a tree trunk.
Masterly pulls out a long braided whip and James looks vaguely unwell. He gets an unlit cigarette stuck between his lips. “You said you were thinking of starting, well here you go.” Masterly takes a few steps back and cracks the whip against the pavement. James flinches. Masterly cracks it again. “Don’t fuckin’ move.” A woman gasps, and Masterly is right on top of it. “You his girlfriend? Don’t worry, anything happens to him I’ll take care of you.” he grins. “Ever go out with a Chinese guy? We deliver.” He pauses. “Unfortunately, in fifteen minutes.” He turns back to the Irish guy. “So, Mickey—”
“I will whip this cigarette out of Sir James’s mouth. How many folks think I can do this, give me some applause.” Claps scatter like butterflies, and Masterly looks concerned. “How many think I can’t do this?” Bigger applause. “How many of you just want to see a minority whip the white guy?” The audience roars, and I wonder, What is it that gets them so excited? His fearlessness at stepping on delicate sensibilities? Or simply the promise of fire?
Luke is pressing his palms together behind the tree.
The local contingent of the crowd is getting impatient. “Hurry up and whip him!” they shout, in New York accents.
Masterly smiles, then spots the old Asian man. Gently, he approaches him. “Hey,” he says. “You okay?” But there’s no response. A hard look comes into his eye and he raises his voice. “Old man! You Chinese?” Still nothing. “Probably Tibetan,” he shrugs. He puts down the whip, picks up the Uzi, and shouts in Mandarin, holding the plastic gun against the old man’s head. It sounds like orders. The old man drops to his knees. The audience is nervous. “Don’t worry,” Masterly says, removing the muzzle from the old man’s temple and passing a hand before his vacant eyes. “See? Nothing. Too long in the re-education camps.”
None of the park performers pass around the hat after the finale. They all know the audience will take their satisfaction and split. They collect while the audience is still salivating. Mustering his strength, Masterly unzips a knapsack, his face expressionless as he goes around with the open bag. A bare-chested Latino tosses in a buck, and Masterly picks it right back out. “Buy a shirt, man. Be the first one in your barrio.” One of the breakdancers puts in a five, as usual. “Thanks, brother.” He’ll do the same when they pass around their hat. Then he holds the bag open for a man in an L.L. Bean shirt and chinos, who drops in a quarter. Masterly feigns shock. “Street-performer gives five dollars, you can’t even give a buck? …White people…” he shakes his head, and the man immediately puts in two dollars. Masterly moves on, muttering, “That’s right, give me money so I can work six hours a week while you work sixty.”
I crawl to where Masterly’s amplifier sits hidden in a patch of crabgrass. Luke charts my every move, first confused, then complicit.
When Masterly’s bag looks sufficiently filled he tosses it to the breakdancers for safekeeping, picks up the whip, lets out another kung-fu screech, and runs back to the center of the crowd. He cracks the whip, and James’s cigarette falls neatly in two.
A boy in the crowd jumps up and down, “He did it! He did it!” as James removes the butt from his lips and stares at it. When he looks up, Masterly is already dashing to a stack of wooden boards—in one swift motion he splashes lighter fluid across them and sets them aflame. The fire is real and his expression is concentrated. He pulls a karate hand back and with a genuine black belt scream thrusts it forward in a giant explosion of power that smashes the wood to matchsticks.
Breathing through clenched teeth, he glares as the flames splutter and die on the asphalt. Strands of hair crisscross his face; he pushes them away. I hunker down as the bits of wood smolder and die out. The audience nudges them with their toes, checking to see they’re real. The little boy looks around furtively, then sticks a charred lump in his pocket.
Before the crowd has a chance to dissipate, the breakdancers start their next show, hip-hopping and calling to the audience, “Your donations—”
“—keep us out of two places. The po’ house—”
“—and yo’ house.”
Luke nods at me once from behind the tree. As the shards of wood burn down to ash I approach Masterly sitting on his amplifier condensing loose cash into a solid wad. I eye the money. He tamps the edge flat and snaps a rubber band around it. “You’re not afraid of getting ripped off?” I ask.
He gives me a steady look. Picks up a lump of coal and wipes soot across each cheek like warpaint. He points to the torches, knives, gasoline. “Nobody’s going to bother me,” he says, and zips his knapsack. His equipment lies on the ground, looking like it might any moment jump up and start speaking to me in tongues. He stares, first at Luke, then at me. In the background, the breakdancers flip like coins in the air. Masterly sweeps his hair back and ties it with an elastic band. “No one can stay up there for very long.”
I touch his hand, greasy with soot. It smells dangerous, of gasoline and fire. I spot Luke by the water fountain, splashing his face. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and stares at me, baptized with what he is about to witness.
About the author:
Eugenia Klopsis was born in Brooklyn and received a BA from Hunter College. She then received an M.Ed. from Temple University and taught at an international school in Holland for three years. She got her MFA at Brooklyn College, and has published fiction in various literary journals and nonfiction at www.MrBellersNeighborhood.com. Since September 2003, Ms. Klopsis has been publishing "EMT Diary," a weekly features column, every Monday in The New York Sun, which is based on her experiences working on an FDNY ambulance. She has been a guest lecturer at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She is married to an NYPD captain and has a six month old son. They live in Brooklyn.