The Calypso King

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You’ll find them on any warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon in NYC’s Washington Square, within a periphery of chess games, sun-worshippers, singers, exhibitionists, hustlers and a gauntlet of young men murmuring “Smoke? Smoke?” to anyone not indigenous (which is nearly everyone, since this is where tourists come to hang out, trying to feel indigenous while taking in the spectacle). At first you might not distinguish the Calypso Tumblers from the other performers vying for crowd share. So you look for the largest throng growing in the park. And you listen for insistent British West Indies patter. Unison chants, claps. A glimpse of a body catapulting crazily though the air. Nearby, a wannabe break-dance act with a relentless barker tries to pry away onlookers, earning little more than a glance…pretenders, no-time-in-grade upstarts who should know better, should concede that when it’s show-time, the Calypso Tumblers own Washington Square.

At the heart of things is Alex Bartlette, a handsome kid from St Kitts, with dreadlocks and cheerfully aggressive banter. He says he’s 35, that he’s 5’7″ and 175 pounds. None of that is apparent; he seems younger, more compact. Shirtless, he displays a torso and arms rightful to a middleweight lineup at the Nationals. But his stuff is functional, because not only is Alex the group’s leader, promoter and conductor, he’s their star performer. He’s also one of the most incredible athletes I’ve ever seen. As much as anything, it’s what I witnessed Alex doing one summer afternoon, which paused me there to watch awhile longer.

A staccato of backward and forward aerials, executed so casually, so easily, as if it had just occurred to him at this moment to do them. Vertical push-ups -over twenty of them, the last half-dozen with the forearms dropped to the pavement. Alex walks up steps on his hands, jumps down those steps on his hands. He juggles three or four raw eggs, catching one behind his neck and flipping it back into the air, before catching it (now scrambled) in his mouth. With a running start -just shoes on concrete and no springboard- he dives over a pole held over six feet high, flipping and landing on his feet. Alex caps off his act by doing the same thing over a row of nine women pulled from the audience.

You might have seen some of this at the Arnold Fitness Expo a few years back, where the act included a guy named Abdul who did a mind-boggling one-arm planche routine atop teetering stacks of bricks. It wasn’t easy getting the boys there; it took a year of pleading to get a tape from Alex to send Jim Lorimer. Not that the Calypso Tumblers are strangers to media -in addition to being written up in nearly every New York newspaper (plus a host of foreign ones) they’ve had numerous TV appearances, including Arsenio Hall, Good Morning America, The Today Show and NBC’s Showtime at the Apollo. They’ve performed at major festivals, carnivals and corporate functions, across the US and abroad. And they’re a big hit at the Arnold, where attention is hard to steal if you’re not Trish Stratus or puffed up beyond surreal. But amidst these peaks, despite their fantastic marketability, the Calypso Tumblers are still eking out a daily existence as street performers, begging together an audience, passing the hat. It seems a terrible waste.

Alex took me to his gym, a modest little walk-up in Jersey City. He doesn’t get here much, but then again, he doesn’t need to. If intensity rules, the exertions of Alex’s street performances are on par with the regimen of any SynthOlympian, few of whom could manage a vertical pushup. And who needs squats with body-launches like these? So Alex eschews the heavy weights, though he’s obviously capable of them. Most of his workout was only two movements -lat pull-downs and steep incline-board sit-ups. Also, I don’t recall seeing him eat anything that day except some fruit and a few hard-boiled eggs, which he peeled unceremoniously and stuffed in his mouth while aiming his Ford Explorer toward the Holland tunnel. “Your body won’t take this forever,” I told him. “The pavement’s gonna do you in. Sooner or later your joints are shot. I’ve got advanced arthritis in my right shoulder just from non-competitive lifting. You’re thirty-five now. What’ll you be doing in five years?” Alex grinned. “Real estate. I have property in St. Kitts.”

He’d grown up there, in a family with ten siblings. Superb genetics and the rough-tumble boyhood of island life, where you street-fought for a dollar and contested each other in body-stunts on the beach, gave him the physical bedrock to challenge New York pavement. Alex didn’t found the Calypso Tumblers when he arrived in 1986; that had been done five years earlier by M.C. John “Dr. Juice” Allicock, who would mentor him from a few rudimentary stunts to airborne wonder. Aware of his gift and appeal, Alex moves at times with an informed swagger. He knows everyone-the cops, the vendors, the hustlers. Young women slip him phone numbers, occasionally on condoms. He’s a Player in a landscape characterized by anonymity. He should know that there are much bigger possibilities beyond this -perhaps he does-but he finds the street-thing agreeable, and will return to it time and time again.

I couldn’t help thinking about Alex and his boys while attending the Mr. Olympia in Las Vegas this past fall. At the Mandalay and elsewhere, I watched dozens of oversized guys waddling through the casinos, showily swollen in site-injected splendor so excessive as to have abdicated function; I could picture them flailing helpless as turtles flipped on their backs. Yet doubtless, these same guys would snicker at stunts of John Grimek and his forebearers, old geezers who’d felt the absurd need to do stuff with their brawn, to have some fun demonstrating its utility…that “physical-culture” crap. Meanwhile, all over Vegas I see billboards heralding casino-hotel star-appearances of crooners, comedians and conjurers, none of whom risks life and limb with each performance, few of whom are truly electrifying, all of whom very likely command more in one week than Alex makes in a year.

“They’re probably treated like royalty too, “I tell him. “Limos, the best restaurants, maybe even all the show-girls they want…” It’s a warm November morning in Battery Park. Alex and the boys are working the waterfront as they usually do on weekdays, though sightseers to the Statue and Ellis Island are thinning with season and the awful events of two months earlier. Alex isn’t paying much attention to my show-biz pitch. “Excuse me for a minute,” he says, hyper-enunciating each syllable. “I must attend to business.” And he trots over to the queue forming for the boat, addressing the crowd in mock formality of a non-existent park official: “Everybody going aboard, please, line up behind this rope…thank you, you are so polite- I love polite people…I must inform you the Statue and Ellis Island are closed for secur-i-ty pur-po-ses. The boat will just circle around them…” Alex pauses to flirt with one or two of the women, making a big fuss in his knowing lilt about how pretty they are, his angels. “Now, while you are waiting, my friends and I are going to sacrifice our own personal safety to entertain you. If you like what you see, please clap. Like this-” He claps, and the other Tumblers position themselves, clapping too. “And if you don’t like what you see, please clap anyway…”

Alex has them now; the crowd warms to him, even if only in curious amusement at his brash charm. The boat hasn’t docked yet, and then it must disgorge, so these people aren’t going anywhere, not for a few minutes. And the line is building, a captive audience -street-style. Showtime. The Calypso King pulls over a trash container, jumps atop it, strips off his shirt, and begins.

December 2001

Postscript: In 2007 the Calypso Tumblers appeared to great acclaim on “America’s Got Talent.”

Write by phanmemgoc

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