Fire Poi Busking
By Claire Brownell
Post-grad unemployment is a harsh and unforgiving reality. A few weeks after moving into a dilapidated townhouse in London, Ontario, lured away from the comfort of our parents’ homes by false promises of employment and cheap rent, the financial situation of my roommates and I was getting dire. We needed a way to support the lifestyle to which we’d grown accustomed — lying around on mattresses on our living room floor all day, repeating our motto “today I buy whiskey, tomorrow I find job.” We took stock of our marketable skills and, sure enough, it wasn’t my bachelor’s degree in political science or our various industrial and service industry experiences that was to keep us supplied with gin, Mr. Noodles, and nicotine for the next few weeks. It was the hours my roommate Victoria had spent practicing spinning fire poi that saved us.
Fire poi, in a nutshell, is two flaming balls on chains that you spin around in patterns. Originally practiced by the Maori people of New Zealand, it’s become something of a global subculture with poi dancers linked by message board communities. People spin poi as a form of meditation, to one-up those lame glow stick kids at music festivals, and because, well, could you have a cooler hobby? Most importantly, it really impresses drunken people. Our original scheme was to sell beer lemonade-stand-style in sparkly bikinis off our front stoop, but fire poi busking seemed like a more lucrative and slightly less illegal business plan. We imagined people lining up for the bars on a Thursday night losing their minds at the sight of Vicky spinning fire and dollar signs flashed before our eyes.
We spray-painted a baseball cap gold to collect change in and made a sign that said “Support our drinking and fireplay.” We stationed ourselves in an alley beside the busiest bar we could find, lit up the poi, and started the music in our stereo. There was an audible “Whoa!” from the onlookers in the line up and on the patio. Fire spinning not only looks really impressive, it also makes a great whooshing sound. When people stopped to look, it was everyone else’s job to give them the sales pitch: “Crazy, eh? Bet you’ve never seen anything like that before. Kerosene, bristol board, and gold spray painted hats don’t come for free, you know.” People’s reactions ranged from the predictable “I’ve got my own drinking to support, thanks” to dumping the entire contents of their wallet in wide-eyed silence into the hat.
We could see police across the street scratching their heads, flipping through their book, obviously trying and failing to come up with a bylaw we were breaking. We thought it was all over when the bar owner came out to talk to us, but he wanted to thank us for improving business. Eventually the crowd started stumbling home and petering out. We had made eighty-five dollars in about an hour — including two twenty dollar bills.
I feel that our entrepreneurial and artistic spirits were appreciated. I caught more than one flash of pity tinged with envy in the eyes of spectators who were probably unemployed like us — sort of “this is awesome!” mixed with “I wish I had thought of something like this” mixed with “ouch — I hope I don’t have to stoop this low.” In the end, it was the basic law of supply and demand working in our favour: London was desperate for a break from blandness, and Vicky delivered. Everybody wins. And now we can buy a summer’s worth of kerosene with our hat full of money.