King Calypso

You will find them on any warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon in New York’s Washington Square, within a periphery of chess games, sun worshipers, singers, exhibitionists, hustlers, and a glove of youths muttering “Smoke? Smoke?” to anyone who is not indigenous (which is almost everyone, as this is where tourists come to hang out, feel while enjoying the show). At first, you may not distinguish the Calypso Tumblers from the other artists vying for crowd participation. So look for the biggest crowd growing in the park. And you hear the insistent pounding of the British West Indies. Singing in unison, applause. A glimpse of a body catapulting like a madman through the air. Nearby, an aspiring break-dancer with a tireless barker tries to ward off onlookers, earning little more than a glance … suitors, timeless upstarts to the degree that they should know better, should admit that whenever show time, Calypso glasses own self Washington Square.

At the center of it all is Alex Bartlette, a handsome boy from San Cristóbal, with dreadlocks and cheerfully aggressive jokes. He says he is 35 years old, 5’7 “and 175 pounds. None of that is obvious; he looks younger, more compact. Shirtless, he shows a torso and arms that match a Nationals middleweight lineup. But his is functional, because Alex is not only the leader, promoter and director of the group, he is its star performer. He is also one of the most incredible athletes I have ever seen. More than anything, it’s what I saw Alex do one summer afternoon, which stopped me there to watch a bit more.

A staccato of antennas back and forth, executed so naturally, so easily, as if at that moment it had occurred to him to do them. Vertical push-ups: more than twenty, the last half a dozen with the forearms dropped to the pavement. Alex climbs the steps with his hands, jumps those steps with his hands. Juggles three or four raw eggs, catching one behind his neck and flipping it back into the air, before catching it (now scrambled) in its mouth. With a start to the race, only shoes on concrete and no trampoline, he throws himself over a sustained pole over six feet tall, flipping and landing on his feet. Alex finishes off his act by doing the same in a row of nine women taken from the audience.

You may have seen some of this at the Arnold Fitness Expo a few years ago, where the event featured a guy named Abdul doing a mind-blowing one-arm workout. Council grind atop stacks of wobbly bricks. It was not easy to get the boys there; It took me a year to beg for a tape of Alex to send to Jim Lorimer. Not that the Calypso Tumblers are strangers to the media, in addition to appearing in almost every New York newspaper (plus a host of foreign newspapers), they have had numerous television appearances, including Arsenio Hall, Good Morning America, The Today Show and NBC Showtime at the Apollo. They have performed at major festivals, carnivals, and corporate functions, in the US and abroad. And they’re a huge hit at the Arnold, where the spotlight is hard to steal if you’re not Trish Stratus or inflated beyond the surreal. But amid these peaks, despite their fantastic marketability, the Calypso Tumblers still struggle to survive as street performers, pleading together to an audience, passing the hat. It seems like a terrible waste.

Alex took me to his gym, a modest little walk in Jersey City. It doesn’t get much here, but again, it doesn’t have to. If intensity rules, Alex’s street performance efforts are on par with any SynthOlympian regimen, few of which could handle a vertical flex. And who needs body throw squats like these? So Alex avoids heavyweights, although he is obviously capable of doing them. Most of his training consisted of just two movements: flat-lay push-ups and sit-ups with a steep incline board. Also, I don’t recall seeing him eat anything that day except some fruit and some hard-boiled eggs, which he unceremoniously hit and popped as he pointed his Ford Explorer toward the Holland Tunnel. “Your body won’t take this forever,” I told him. “The pavement is going to tear you apart. Sooner or later your joints will shoot. I have advanced arthritis in my right shoulder just from lifting non-competitive objects. You are now thirty-five years old. What will you do in five years?” ? “Alex smiled.” Real estate. I have property in St. Kitts. “

He had grown up there, in a family with ten siblings. The magnificent genetics and hectic childhoods of island life, in which they fought on the street for a dollar and fought in body stunts on the beach, gave him the physical foundation to brave the pavement of New York. Alex couldn’t find the Calypso glasses when he arrived in 1986; that had been done five years earlier by MC John “Dr. Juice” Allicock, who would guide him from some rudimentary stunts to aerial wonders. Aware of his gift and attractiveness, Alex moves at times with informed arrogance. He knows everyone-the police, the vendors, the scammers. Young women give you phone numbers, occasionally on condoms. He is a player in a landscape characterized by anonymity. He should know that there are much greater possibilities beyond this, maybe he will, but he finds the thing on the street nice and will come back to it again and again.

I couldn’t help but think of Alex and his kids while attending the Mr. Olympia in Las Vegas last fall. At the Mandalay and elsewhere, I saw dozens of hulking dudes roaming the casinos, ostentatiously puffed up in a site-injected splendor so excessive as to have abdicated their function; He could imagine them flailing helplessly as the turtles turned on their backs. Yet these same guys would undoubtedly scoff at the stunts of John Grimek and his forefathers, old men who had felt the absurd need to do stuff with his muscles, for fun demonstrating his usefulness … that “physical culture” shit. Meanwhile, everywhere in Las Vegas I see billboards advertising appearances at casino-hotel stars by singers, comedians, and conjurers, none of whom risk life and limb with every performance, few of whom are truly electrifying. , all of which most likely command more in a week. than Alex earns in a year.

“They probably treat them like royalty too,” I tell him. “Limousines, the best restaurants, maybe even all the showgirls who want …” It is a warm November morning in Battery Park. Alex and the kids are working the waterfront as they usually do on weekdays, though tourists visiting the Statue and Ellis Island are dwindling with the season and the horrific events of two months earlier. Alex isn’t paying much attention to my showbiz speech. “Excuse me a minute,” he says, hyper-enunciating each syllable. “I must take care of business.” And he jogs towards the queue that forms for the boat, addressing the crowd in the feigned formality of a non-existent park officer: “Everyone get on board, please line up behind this rope … thank you, you are so polite – Me love Educated people … I must inform you that the Statue and Ellis Island are closed for security reasons. The ship will just go around them … “Alex pauses to flirt with one or two of the women, making a big splash in his sage singing about how pretty they are, his angels.” Now while you wait, my friends. And I’m going to sacrifice our own personal safety to entertain you. If you like what you see, clap your hands. Like this: “Clap your hands, and the other Tumblers position themselves, clapping too.” And if you whose like what you see, clap anyway … “

Alex has them now; the crowd appreciates him, if only curiously amused by his cheeky charm. The ship has not docked yet, and then must vomit, so these people are not going anywhere, not for a few minutes. And the line is building, a captivating street-style audience. Show time. King Calypso stops a dumpster, jumps on it, takes off his shirt, and begins.

December 2001

Postscript: In 2007, the Calypso Tumblers appeared with great success on “America’s Got Talent.”

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