"Lowering the Bar"
Dublin’s Temple Bar isn’t as run down as it used to be. Tourists like my wife and I used to cringe at the sight of dilapidated storefronts and fear for our lives down darkened alleyways. Revenue dropped. Morale plummeted. And rumors spread that those in charge of such things were going to break tradition and cancel the annual Fishamble Street performance of Handel’s Messiah.
It took them more than a decade to clean up the area, but the tourists returned. Flags with the Irish green, white, and orange now dangled from balconies above the people strolling the grey cobblestone street below. The people had character. There was the British guys in T-shirts with colored collars, the woman with the pink fanny pack, the son and his white-haired mother with travel packs stuffed with at least a week’s worth of supplies, and the four men sporting green and yellow soccer jerseys.
On our first pass through Temple Bar Square, the outdoor book market locked me in its tractor beam. Here we were on day thirteen of our twenty day backpacking trip, and I wanted to search for a book to buy, as if what remained of Harry Potter three through five wasn’t enough to keep me alive for a week. Bookhunting obsessions are a mystery. Even without a particular book in mind, the minutes ran away from me as I rifled through the boxes of books.
“We should probably eat soon.” Lisa sidled up to me from whatever she’d been doing and wrapped her arms around my waist. “That one place looked like the best bet.”
“Ye Auld Dubliner?” I said it like a pirate, and she laughed.
“Yes, me hearty.” She let go of my waist and leaned on her invisible peg leg.
“Would you look at that?” I cut her off and pointed alongside a row of books in a wooden box with dividers.
“What?” She pretend-limped over to look.
“There’s two euros just sitting there,” I whispered, pulling my hand away from the coin before I drew anyone’s attention. Any normal person would have picked it up.
“Think I should take it?”
“No.” Her tone went stern on me. She could get carried away with integrity.
“It’s not yours. How could you feel right about it?”
“Well, it’s not hers, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
As I finished, she notched her head toward the older woman wearing her green Luck ‘O the Irish ballcap. Her two adolescent daughters were sweeping some trash out front.
“It’s in her box,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean it’s hers. Someone could have dropped it.”
Something didn’t feel right about it. I don’t know what. I imagined the woman early that morning packing her van with crates and selling books all day to bibliophiles like myself. I wondered if she might need those two euros for something.
“It’s up to you,” my wife said. “Take it or leave it.”
I stared at it for a moment. “I can’t.” It had something to do with the way the coin nestled its way into the corner of the crate.
She laughed at me.
“Nothing. You’re funny is all. Let’s go.”
The Auld Dubliner stood on the corner no more than fifty yards across the square, waiting upstairs with my Guinness and a hamburger. Lisa mowed through steak fries again for the third straight night, and the curly-haired server talked to us about the rival soccer game the night before and asked us if we’d heard about the fight down at The Foggy Dew.
The whole time she was talking, I couldn’t rid my mind of that coin. I second-guessed my decision to leave it there. If she doesn’t know it’s there, it wasn’t really hers. And two euros weren’t anything to toss a clover at.
We tipped the server, more for keeping us company than for her service, and started down the dark hallway stairs. Lisa had to use the restroom, so I waited for her at the bottom. Alone for the first time all day, I read the placards with various Irish sayings on them. One of them said, “Get to heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” I chuckled at the reminder of the song and belted it loud enough that someone could have heard me if they were standing close by. I even danced a jig, if you can believe it.
I read another placard. “When Irish eyes are smiling, they’re usually up to something.” I didn’t know what to think of it. It reminded me of the book lady.
“I want to go back,” I said when Lisa joined me at the bottom of the stairs.
“What? Go back where? It’s almost dark.”
“It’ll only take a minute to check. Two euros is two euros. That’s ice cream for both of us.”
She didn’t want to. A woman’s eyes have a way of saying things. “Fine, but I’m not walking down any dark alleys with you on the way home.”
Since we’d gone inside, the square had filled up with people, formed in a large arc around an event in the center. Techno music pounded the air with the bass beat. We’d heard that kind of music enough not to question whether it belonged here or not.
The light in the square was fading. The woman and her two daughters had started packing up for the evening. One of the girls was unfastening a bungee cord from a corner of the tent. They hadn’t touched the crates yet.
“Packing up already?” I asked.
Lisa smacked me lightly across the arm. Her face didn’t offer any clues as to what she was thinking, but I wouldn’t doubt it if her conscience was scraping away at her. Her integrity streak could put a damper on things when it got riled up.
The woman smiled at me and resumed her work as if she didn’t want to talk. I treaded around the corner, all the while eyeing the crate and waiting for the coin to come into view. Then there it was, nestled there on the other side of the books.
I glanced over at the woman. She was sliding books into a bag for a customer. She checked up on her daughter who was untying the cord at the corner of the tarp roof. “Darling, wait till the customers leave. Then I’ll help you with it.”
“Well?” Lisa said. My wife was a woman of a thousand faces, but I’d never seen this one before. The combination of eyebrows and forehead wrinkles seemed a mixture of “Don’t you dare” and “I can’t believe you.”
I looked back over at the book lady. When she went to her money belt for change, I reached out smoothly and took the coin. It was so easy, but as I combined it with the rest of the change in my money belt, an uneasiness crept over me. We continued circling the tent and were almost around the other side when the customer walked away.
“Find what you’re looking for?” The woman gave us a suspicious look.
“It isn’t there anymore.”
“Which one’s that?”
“Harry Potter. The new one.” I pointed over to the crate.
Her eyebrows furled. “I think I’ve got one back here.” She crouched and pulled out a copy, a black-covered British adult edition. The book covers were attractive in the glossy artistic sort of way that American designers had yet to figure out. Simply put, British book covers made me want to read.
“I thought I saw an American one earlier,” I lied. I inched further around the side of the stand.
She set the book down behind her. “I don’t think so. No, I’m pretty sure we’re plum sold out of those, sweetie.”
Lisa muttered to me, “Let’s go.”
“Thanks anyway.” I grabbed Lisa’s hand and paced toward the crowd. I felt it all—the woman watching us, the coin in my pocket cold against my leg, Lisa glaring at me with her mind.
I wanted one last look at the woman but decided against it. “Let’s go around the other side.”
The newer Temple Bar brochures all said that every evening the square turned into what they called “Speaker’s Corner,” like the one at the north end of London’s Hyde Park. We inched ourselves through the porous crowd at the back to see if this was what we’d heard about. The speakers weren’t as we’d imagined. Red cloth barricades partitioned off a large section of the square, and people oozed into the cracks around the perimeter.
Two black men moved around the center of the clearing. One of them wore nothing but a loose leotard of black and white leopard print and a matching cap; the other, tan and green camouflage pants and a white tank top, his hair hanging in dreadlocks.
I’d read about artsy people doing artsy things in Temple Bar, balancing tractors on top of each other and calling it art, only a chain link fence protecting it from pedestrians and vandals. But this wasn’t that. This was two black men performing acrobatic tricks, somersaults and flips through black and white swirled hoops on their red carpet runway.
Camouflage Man ran and executed front handsprings across the red carpet.
I swung my backpack around to the side to remove our camera. Lisa hadn’t said anything since her “Let’s go” back at the book tent.
“What do you think of that, babe?” I asked.
She just looked at me. Her facial expression said, “Seriously?”
Then a man with a yellow shirt that read “Beaver Life” across the front and a blue shirt tied around his waist staggered into the middle of the clearing. As the performers danced synchronized to the music, Beaver Life Man dangled a green Old Cellar bottle from his hand, a cigarette pinned behind his ear. His at-least-a-couple-days-old facial hair was as long as the hair on his head. He held his arm out at ninety degrees, the zipper of his jeans propped wide a good two inches. I’d never seen anyone more intoxicated.
At first, the performers danced around him, but he started his own jig, not the slightest bit worried about matching their choreography. Camera flashes lit up all around. The man next to us tapped his wife on the shoulder and told her, “Look, you gotta see this.” Leopard Man tried moving Beaver Life to the side while Camouflage continued dancing, smiling to the audience the whole time.
The three of them so fascinated me that I must have snapped twenty pictures of Leopard walking him over and sitting Beaver Life down on the bench up against the barricades. Leopard adjusted the volume on the stereo and resumed the routine with his partner. They secured one of the black and white hoops atop the other one and lit the outside of it on fire. The music thumped as they dove through the stacked flaming hoops from opposite directions, gaining their feet and leaping back through half a dozen times.
Beaver Life stayed put on his bench, thumbing the sides of his cigarette like he’d never smoked one before in his life. The way he was seated I could see his zipper had spread itself open further than before.
Leopard dove through the hoop for the last time and hurried to the stereo to change the song. From the ground behind the stereo cart, he pulled a unicycle and mounted himself on it immediately. In a staggering, wandering sort of way, Beaver Life paced in front of his bench, tickled at the sight of the unicycle. He hunched over to laugh and took a drag from his cigarette. I couldn’t have been the only one in the crowd who wanted him to dance again.
But he stayed out of the way and let the performers do their thing until Leopard smothered the flames with a towel and moved the hoops off to the side. Together, the two men took apart the limbo and reassembled it at center stage, the metal pole hooked into two wooden racks. Camouflage switched the music over to create the limbo ambiance. To inspire the crowd, the two of them danced circles around the taunting bar. Beaver Life didn’t require much inspiring. He fidgeted on his bench as if he was actually walking around. When his imaginings finally urged him to stand, the alcohol dragged him across the clearing to join the acrobats. Camouflage grabbed his arm and guided him right back to his seat while Leopard psyched himself up for the limbo.
Leopard passed the first, second, and third levels without a problem, but they seemed to lower the bar twice as fast as any limbo competitions I’d ever seen. Sooner than later, they were moving the wooden racks out of the way and balancing the bar back atop two wine bottles with fat bottoms and skinny necks. Until then, I hadn’t noticed the three towels wrapped tightly around the limbo pole. They poured alcohol across the towels, saturating them until they dripped excess onto the cement.
As I think back on the event, I can’t recall what Lisa was doing. I don’t even remember looking at her the entire performance. Ye Auld Dubliner, the book lady, the two euro coin in my pocket—they were all forgotten, erased for the time being.
Leopard ran a match along the top of the cloth and grinned. Then he crossed his arms and shook his finger at us, letting us know we weren’t going to see anything else until we paid him. Camouflage ripped the leopard hat from his partner’s head and toured the edges of the crowd. “My friend here loves doing this part of the show, but he told me just now that he’s not going any further until you pay him. It’s dangerous work, you know.”
People toward the back started to break off from the crowd.
“You folks aren’t leaving, are you? You know you’ve been watching. You didn’t think we were doing this for free?”
I tried to avoid his eyes as he prowled the perimeter. Only three people separated us from the man and his leopard-print offering bucket, the inside probably still damp from Leopard’s head. The four men I’d seen earlier wearing soccer jerseys turned around to leave. An elderly woman guided her husband away, his cane tapping a path through the crowd. Many of those who weren’t leaving turned their heads to pretend they were talking to someone.
I imagined what Camouflage must see each evening—a crowd of freeloaders, tourists with enough money for dinner and dessert, but not enough left to help a couple of acrobats.
“Come on, folks. I don’t think he’s going to do it for less than a hundred.” Camouflage passed the hat beneath the noses of the people he could reach, and the man next to us dropped a bill inside. People filled the hat with coins, but the muffled buzz among the onlookers gave me the impression that most people weren’t there to watch the acrobatics. For all we cared, they could stop performing. We were just waiting around to see what Beaver Life might do.
Still, I felt guilty. The two euro coin grew heavy in my pocket. I dug the coin from my jeans and waved it for Camouflage to see. He inched his way into the crowd, and my hand brushed against the hat’s soft lining as I dropped the coin inside. He ran it over to Leopard, who peered inside and shook his head.
“He says it’s not enough. He could get hurt out here. Let’s help him out.” Camouflage waved his arms at everyone, and I wondered what would happen if the money splashed all over the ground, what chaos might ensue.
The collection continued a few more minutes, but I felt justified having paid, like I’d done something right, completed the circle. I didn’t look at Lisa, but I could picture her nodding in approval, her face saying, “That’s better.”
Camouflage never showed the bucket to his partner again, but he must have decided people had given enough because Leopard went on with the show. He stood before the bar and shimmied his body beneath it. He sprawled his legs out to the sides, his body flattened to the ground between them. With a shuffle of his feet, he scooted himself under the bar and out the other side, the flaming cloths dancing in his face the whole time.
That’s when Beaver Life realized how much he was enjoying the limbo beat. He set his bottle down by the bench and danced his way to the center around the limbo bar, just as Leopard emerged from the other side. The crowd burst into a riproaring applause, and Beaver Life’s slouching face lit up with excitement, his sunken eyes rising to the surface for a moment. The performers shot a glance at each other.
Stepping forward hand in hand, they bowed. “Thank you. We hope you all enjoyed yourselves. Tell your friends.” Then they slinked to the back of the stage, disassembling the limbo bar on the way, and Camouflage cut power to the stereo.
The stage now all to himself, Beaver Life set himself to dancing. A new cigarette rested behind his ear. He studied the ground between his feet as he shuffled left to right. I couldn’t help but notice how isolated he was out there in the clearing, no one within twenty feet of him, the walls of barricades now protecting us from him. His zipper was still down, still proud, so I steadied my camera and snapped pictures, hoping to capture the moment on film.
Lisa laughed at the hilarity of the scene, and I couldn’t help but join her. It should have been sad, pathetic maybe, but it wasn’t. People all over the square laughed with us. The man next to us nudged his wife. Some people behind us started clapping a rhythm that Beaver Dance could keep up with. Leopard stopped packing up to watch his competition. And even though I knew it wasn’t scheduled again until next April, I imagined Handel’s Messiah overpowering the awkward air with its penultimate “Forever! And ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” The crowd would keep clapping and Beaver Dance would do his thing, and my camera would somehow make those lyrics the caption on the photo, capturing it all in a way that would make sense when the trip was over and done with, when our Irish eyes would look back and smile.
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