It was a simply gorgeous summer day. The Central Park Mall was unlike any other place to visit. The trees formed an enormous golden green canopy over the forty foot wide walkway, and the pedestrian street was lined with buskers and performers of all sorts.
What to do? I had a whole day to myself,a pearl of great price. I had packed a picnic, with the idea of going to the Central Park pond to row a bit and people watch.
God’s creativity never failed to make me smile. A placard wielding college kid stood in the distance. What-a war protester? Pro lifer? Gay rights? No- “Jokes, 1$, Laughter guaranteed!” A true American entrepreneur! I pulled out a dollar and tossed it in the bucket.
“Ok, buddy, I’ll bite. Make me laugh and I’ll give you two.” The handsome, clean-shaven college kid faced me full on. Just the size of his ears made me chuckle.
“Did you hear about the hostile Republican who sent a memo around that Obama’s parent’s were monkeys? Clearly they were elephants!” Bada bing.
“What do you call a cane for a blind cow? Hamburger helper! ”
“What kind of guns do honeybees use?BB guns!” Oh! I laughed at the lameness of it all, and got out of there before he could do any more damage.
Next stop was a little boy juggling. First balls. Then plastic bats. Then giant sticks. Then, things got really interesting, he pulled out a unicycle.
“How old are you, kid?” He jumped on the unicycle, rode around like mad. He made a quick, graceful dip and grabbed five of the plastic bats.
“Eleven! I’m eleven!” He started to juggle the bats and flawlessly kept them all in the air as he cavorted around on the unicycle.
I felt the smile spread across my face as I continued down this street of goofy dreams. An elderly black man offered me a bottle of ice.
“For you, a dollar, pretty lady. Usually 2!” I chuckled and pressed the ice against my forehead. “Thanks!”
The mall widens at the Naumberg Band shell, between 66th and 77th streets. Dozens of park benches line the mall there, and a crowd was gathering. I sat on one of the benches, trying to peer into the excitement.
“Who’s the best?” (We are!)
“Ima the best!” (Indeed you are!)
“Ima the Powerhouse” (Yes he is)
“Ima gonna give you da best show in Central Park!” (Yessa we are)
Black English! It galvanized my attention. Black English gained recognition as a legitimate American dialect in the eighties, when linguistics was still fascinating to me.
I stood and bounded over to the edge of the crowd. A group of five men stood in front of a late eighties boom box. One of them was white, sort of, but the other four were so black you would lose them in a dark room. The leader stood in front of the group, and as he spoke, his gleaming patois was echoed by the rest of the group.
“Mah name is Powerhouse!” (Yes it is! )
“If you wanna see a show, you gonna hold your babies and show us yo love!” (Not yo hate!)
He held up a twenty. “Yo love!” He held up a five. “Not yo hate!” Ha!
“Do you wanna see a show?” The crowd started to whistle and stomp. ‘Powerhouse’ took off his shirt. He started to mug his chiselled physique to the audience.
He cranked the boom box, and the boys started to run through their paces. Each one had a combination. One would break dance, and end with one armed pushups in time. Another, a series of backflips, handsprings and layouts. Another more current kid, looking like a spastic stork, krumped like a madman to the delight of the audience.
Finally, for the grand finale, Powerhouse lined several women and children up side by side.
“Now! You must give us yo purses and yo sunglasses!”
One of the skinnier boys gathered all the gear. He leered at the audience, and took off down the mall trailing purses, only to be tackled by another krumper, and flattened to the pavement.
“Nahw! Na stop that! We don’t do that any more! ” Powerhouse winked at the audience. The dancer put the purses in a bucket.
Powerhouse layered the verbosity on like paint. Back up! We were told. Stay Still in line or You Gonna Die!
He walked several yards up the mall.
“Yall watch it! I don’t know if I can do this! Ima Forty Five! ” (Yes he is!)
“Rilly! This is a black man runnin with no cop chasin him! No woman at home, so I just chase ladies all day!” The crowd laughed. I grinned at the self-deprecation.
Then I gaped as Powerhouse raced down toward the quaking line of volunteers. He was fast.
He ran full tilt toward the seven standing people. He punched the ground, executed a perfect front handspring, and flew over all the people with a flawless forward twisting layout, and stuck his landing lightly.
I was flabbergasted. No Cirque de Soleil for me. I had Central Park. The crowd went wild, and the boys took their cue to pass around the sacks.
Powerhouse made the rounds to me. I pulled out a twenty.
“Say, Powerhouse! Great show! How about twenty bucks for a picture with you and the boys?”
“Yo know it! Boys!” The men materialized around me at lightspeed. I gave my camera to a passerby, and put my arm around Powerhouse. He put his arm around my waist, and told the man
“You ready? You ready for a special picture?” Suddenly, I was tossed into the air like an armful of autumn leaves.
Decades old training took over and I pointed my feet, positioned my arms and laughed like a child. He caught me lightly, and set me carefully down on my feet.
“Gracious!” I gasped. ” You really are a powerhouse! ” He chuckled and moved on to the next customer. I sat down under a shade tree to recover.
How amazing is that? These boys don’t just develop that kind of skill on their own. They had to have been taught for years, and work out regularly somewhere. I had to get to the bottom of this.
The crowd slowly dispersed, and Powerhouse toweled off.
“Powerhouse! Thanks for the picture! Are you really forty five?”
“Yessm. Work hard every day”.
“Well you look pretty darn sharp. What’s your real name?”
“Martin. These dudes are my cousins, except for the white one. He’s just a friend. We work here every day, during the warm weather, and it’s a pretty good gig.”
We continued to talk, and Martin’s speech began to morph into something more like mine. Martin was amazing, linguistically. He was what people like me call a ‘situational code switcher’. That means he could speak one dialect for one reason, and switch to another one pretty much instantly, given a reason.
Within about sixty seconds, all of the “Ima’s” and “Yo’s” and “Yessms” completely disappeared. In their place was what I deemed to be perfectly normal, nearly accentless speech. It was quite a feat. He told me about years of gymnastics training as a younger man, and how he and the boys rehearse as much as other men do pickup basketball.
“Well, it’s been a treat talking to you ,Martin. Are you really single? You have to be kidding me, here.”
“No, I’m single. I have a son, but I’m single. Why, do you like chocolate?” He pulsed a two handed heart off his chest toward me.
“Very much. Ha!” I pulsed right back. Victoria loves chocolate!