Speed Street Charlotte is a unique street festival. Themed around NASCAR, it takes place on the weekend of the Coca Cola 600 in May. Several full city blocks are closed for the weekend and tens of thousands of people crowd the streets of Uptown to celebrate. The event has hosted Carrie Pickler, Styx and Cheap Trick for headliners.
For the past few years I have been hired to work ‘Street’ style magic during the festival in order to add some flavor and fun. That’s where I met Mr. Nickles. That’s not his real name; I only knew him as “Scott”, but I’ve come to think of Scott as Mr. Nickles.
Mr. Nickles is a displaced citizen – an urban outdoorsman – an economic refugee. What my Grandfather used to call a ‘hobo’, my Father called a ‘vagrant’ and I used to simply refer to as ‘homeless’. I don’t know the current PC term. Mr. Nickles is a man in an unfortunate, tough situation. (I’ll discuss flowering up a problem with pretty language another time.) He is a human being.
I was working my table, gathering some crowds and doing my magic thing when Mr. Nickles ambled over to see what the fuss was about. He seemed a bit put out with the crowd, but seemed to enjoy what I was offering. If you’ve seen me work, you know there’s a bit of storytelling before the ‘magic effects’ begin. Mr. Nickles was very attentive, laughing in the right places and getting into the spirit of things. A tourist passed by and dropped a dollar on my table, so I swept it into my hat. Mr. Nickles followed it with his eyes and I remember thinking, “When this bit is over I’m going to buy that man some lunch. He’s enjoying my show and he looks like he could use a pal for a little while.”
Then the effects started. When the first ‘magic moment’ hit, Mr. Nickles was visibly stunned. I let the moment sink in and watched to see his reaction. What happened was unexpected and a bit humorous; he dug down in his pockets and pulled out … a nickle. He placed it carefully on the table where the dollar had landed a moment earlier and he whispered, “Do some more, please.” So I did. After the next ‘magic moment’ in the routine, Mr. Nickles again dug into his pocket and placed another nickle next to the first … and then another, and another.
Every time something magical happened, this gentleman dropped another nickle (no quarters, no dimes, no pennies; it seemed he had only nickles in his pocket.) Every time he plugged another nickle down, he grunted under his breath. “Damn … whoa … huh … gosh …” I began to tricks and crack jokes just for him. The crowd around us got bigger – like this was the show. It was a great moment of theater. The crowd was laughing at us and with us; I was in physical pain from holding my joy in. Mr. Nickles was laughing right along at the whole situation- happiness dancing in his eyes. The nickles piling up on the table added to a very surreal scene.
Inevitably, the time came when he reached in his pocket and came out empty. “Aw” he said, “I can’t watch no more – I’m outta money.” I assured him he could stay – he didn’t need to pay me to watch. (Though, truth be told, I was swiftly running out of material. It was not going to be long before I came up empty, too.) “No” he said, “I’m out. That was a really fun time. I haven’t laughed that hard in years.” He shook my hand and we were startled by the sudden applause of the crowd. They had seen a great show, a wonderfully real, human moment and they were showing their appreciation. I looked back around to see Mr. Nickles walking on down the street. I was about to call out to him when he started making a wide circle, so I watched to see what he would do. Meanwhile, I scooped the pile of silver into my hat. (There really must have been 60 or 70, at least.) I kept an eye on Mr. Nickles, because I intended to give him the tips that were rapidly piling up on the table and in the hat.
Here’s the best part;
As the crowd was just about dispersed, I looked up to find my new friend standing at my elbow. Before I could say anything, he asked “Hey man, you got any change? I need to make a phone call.” It seems that he had forgotten giving his money away to me. After a moment I poured the collection of shiny Jeffersons out of my hat for him. You would have thought it was a pile of gold bricks. His face split into a huge grin and he all but jumped up and down in glee. He stuffed his pockets full, and then I bought us a couple of NASCAR hot dogs.
I have worked for some great, memorable audiences. I’ll never forget this guy, ever. He not only made my day – he became a part of a very unique, impromptu, magical show.