I recall the first time someone referred to one of my products as "bad." Initially insulted, they explained that bad meant good. However, I just could not fully accept that a word could mean the same as its opposite. It took some years before I saw and heard enough examples to really get it - intonation and context is critically important to conveying this meaning. To this day, it is used sparingly and only a certain type of good seems to be bad. It was one of my first forays into urban slang in New York City, the capital of urban culture.
I never stop to see anything resembling b-boying, aka breakdancing. Born in the Bronx and Harlem, it has been done to death on the streets of New York for decades, often by those moderately skilled and certainly eclipsed by serious gymnasts or acrobatic performers. However, the group which meets regularly at the Union Square subway station main platform on Saturdays, is something else. I decided to stop and bring myself up to date on the hardest of the hardcore - acrobatic hip-hop dancers working on concrete in the New York City subway system, risking fines.
This group's leader is "Float Master" John Rich, born in East Harlem where he still lives. He is 46 years old and has been dancing since the age of eight. John has done gigs worldwide and a commercial for Puma. At this time, he prefers working New York City. Although most street performers barely survive or just supplement their incomes, never underestimate what a savvy top street performer can earn in this city - John makes as much as several hundred dollars on a good day and earns a living dancing on the streets, supplemented with occasional party jobs. He is currently attending New York institute of Technology, working towards a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
I was impressed by John's act, the finale of the show, with his skilled dancing and signature routine - manipulation of a lit cigarette with his mouth. At one point, John inverts the cigarette, completely enveloping it and proceeds to blow smoke in tune with his movements. It is best understood live (John's routine is at the end of the clip):
The skill level of the various acts was extraordinary. A standard has been set and only a fool with poor skills would enter the fray.
No brand of New York City street activity would be authentic without attitude and John Rich has plenty of that - cool, confident and exuding that smugness that nothing impresses a New Yorker. Certainly not a group of young men defiant enough to risk ticketing or feature a routine with cigarette smoking in the subway system, often with the police watching. Depending on the size of the audience the performance attracts and any other number of variables, the group is often ticketed and shut down, whereupon they take their show elsewhere.
I met John at the end of the show. He was quite personable, excited that I would be featuring him here and quite amused when I told him that I would be calling the story No Smoking. But after reviewing the photos and video, I recalled how this particular show was punctuated by a surprise impromptu visitor. In Part 2, you will meet the bizarre man who apparently thought that he too, was a Float Master...
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