During the early aughts, when I was bobbing about the murky shark tank of my mid-20s, there were several years when my income was derived entirely from standing in a silver unitard around NYC.
I started out in the subway after getting fired from my Santa Claus job at Saks Fifth Avenue (the result of an unfortunate collision between Santa, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and a few too many Jack & Gingers), but soon enough I started scoring standing gigs at bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and corporate events. Still, the subways and tourist-clogged streets remained my bread and butter. Being a stationary artist in NYC was a lot less cutthroat back then, when you didn’t have competition from antisemitic Elmo and the Desnudas.
The premise of my act was simple, but required intense concentration: wearing a skin-tight silver unitard, I stood militantly still without blinking until someone dropped money into a plastic bucket at my feet, at which point I would snap out of it and do … something, some gesture of gratitude calibrated to how much I thought they paid. Sometimes it was a quick “thank you” and fake smile; for a dollar or more, I danced and rapped about myself, or angrily chanted the theme song to Mr. Belvedere. Over time, I became adept at distinguishing the sound of coins hitting the bucket from the thud of AA batteries, which the teenagers seemed to have in infinite supply. When they did fool me and I broke stillness for nothing, I always screamed and pointed at them as they scurried away, in a futile attempt to shame them: “CHEAP! CHEAP! CHEAP!”
Or was it human? This was the question I heard most often, by far: “Is that real?” (The second most popular remark was, “If you take that bucket of money you’ll see him move.”) My ass was spanked, I was mooned by a half-dozen Dutch tourists, some clever wag sprayed Reddi-Wip on my crotch, and numerous women staggered up to me with hands outstretched toward my silver manhood—though they were always bluffing. It was just the nature of the game: make Silver Man move, whatever it takes. At first, I refused to wear anything over the unitard. I believed there was something audacious about presenting the full human form in the NYC subway, with nothing but the thinnest patina of silver between my nakedness and Port Authority at rush hour. You’d finally elbow your way out of that long tunnel of shame and degradation leading from Times Square, and suddenly find yourself vaulted into something surreal: a silver, 6-foot-3 male human perched on top of a podium, unblinking, doing nothing.
An incident finally occurred within my first month that convinced me to never go full unitard. I had drawn a particularly large crowd on the subway mezzanine under Port Authority. About 70 people were gathered in a half-circle around me, and I gradually became aware of an old man in a long coat at the outer edge of the crowd, grinning at me.
Then the breakdancers came. I had a somewhat friendly turf war with this group, and sometimes we’d even join forces and perform together at the same spot, with my stillness serving as a not unlucrative counterpoint to their dynamism. But this time they just rudely set up behind me, blasting music and announcing the impending “Showtime.”
The crowd immediately surged toward the dancers and engulfed me. Front and center, I realized too late, was the old man. His hands were out of his coat, and it happened very quickly: he slid his palms up my inner thighs and quickly caressed my junk. Not lingering, just a little taste. He then held his hands up toward his face and looked at them with an enormous smile, eyes aglow as if not even he could believe where they’d been.
From that day on I added to my ensemble an old polyester catering tuxedo, the same one I’d worn to slip onstage at the VMAs to interrupt the Backstreet Boys. It was good to have pockets anyway, and this extra layer of clothing on top of the unitard made no discernible difference to my bottom line, which was the only thing that mattered. Though the police were a hassle from the beginning, I only spent one night in jail wearing a unitard, and on a good day I could pinball between the most lucrative spots whenever they shooed me away. If I was lucky, on weekends I could score a few good hours of uninterrupted standing in prime spots, which in Times Square meant at least $50 an hour, usually more.
For several consecutive Saturdays in 2002, a teenage girl would giddily rush up and squeeze me, posing for a giggly photo with Silver Man. She was pretty, a tall brunette with an enormous smile, but remained a face in the crowd until one afternoon when a woman in her 40s approached me with a photo depicting me and the girl.
“Do you remember this girl? Blink once for yes, two for no.”
I blinked once.
“She’s a huge fan,” the woman said. “And now I can see why! You’re amazing. I want to hire you.”
I gave the woman one of my cards, which simply read “Stationary Artist,” with a phone number and my Hotmail address. A few days later I received a voicemail from the woman, whom we’ll call Tammy.
“Hi Silver Man, I don’t know if you remember me, but I came up to you in Times Square a few days ago and asked if you did parties?” The woman’s voice was cordial and bright, but a little nervous. “My daughter Pamela has some sort of crazy obsession with you, and as a surprise I want to hire you to perform at her Sweet Sixteen birthday party. Please let me know what your rates are and if you’re available.”
The gig was at a bowling alley in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx. It was an extremely long jaunt from my apartment in Brooklyn, but Tammy had promised to pay me $100 an hour for two consecutive hours, in cash, and said she’d provide ground transportation to and from the northernmost stop on the 2 line. So I followed the money up there on a Saturday night.
The subway ride up to the Wakefield-241st Street station gives you a lot of time to think. (Too much time. To this day I still don’t understand why I didn’t just take Metro-North.) I had an anxious feeling, because Pamela’s interactions with me in Times Square had definitely been flirtatious.
Until her mom hired me, I’d thought Pamela was older, and in the back of my mind I feared the birthday girl would make a preternatural pass at me, an envelope-pushing performance artist, in a Yonkers bowling alley bathroom, and maybe I’d be too weak and immature to resist. “Living Statue-tory!”, cried my inner New York Post cover. I was haunted by a nightmarish vision of my reflection in a greasy bathroom mirror, my face streaked with silver and lipstick, her mother waiting in the parking lot to hand me $200 in cash. Sometimes Silver Man went to dark places.
Tammy greeted me at the station. I hadn’t suited up yet, and she was thrilled to see me outside the unitard.
“You made it! And now I know your REAL identity,” she said as she threw her arms around me. “I could EXPOSE you.” She was a mischievous ball of flirtatious energy, shorter than her daughter, with brown hair and large eyes. It was around 7 p.m., and as I maneuvered myself into the front seat of her compact car, I sensed she’d already gotten the party started.
“I’ve never been in such close quarters with a superhero before,” she said, slapping me lightly on the knee. “You’re even cuter without the silver.”
“Thanks,” I replied, cringing as I turned away to silently judge the depressing Yonkers scenery. “Big night for Pamela, huh?”
“Oh you have no idea. She is going to FREAK! She is completely in the dark. She has the hugest crush on you, it’s crazy. Pretty much every Saturday she and her friends take the train down to Times Square and play a game to see who can find Silver Man first. And now I’m bringing Silver Man to her!”
Again with the knee contact, except this time it was a squeeze, not a tap. As always, I focused on the money.
“I rented a private room with a pool table at the bowling alley,” Tammy explained. “The kids are already there. You can change into your costume in the men’s room.”
I was standing bare-chested in a Yonkers bowling alley men’s room with my unitard zipped halfway down to the waist, spreading silver paint all over my face, when the manager barged into my dressing room unannounced.
“Hey, what’s uh?” the man asked, gesturing toward the general direction of my partial, reflective nudity.
“Getting suited up for the gig,” I replied.
“It’s for the private room. The birthday party?”
The man, who looked exactly like the Yonkers bowling alley manager you’re picturing in your head, down to the mustache, sized me up in the mirror.
“You’re not a stripper, are you?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
I chuckled. “Wow, what kind of freaky striptease would that be?”
“How should I know?”
“As far as I know I have not been hired to strip at Pamela’s sweet 16 birthday party,” I assured him.
“I really hope not, for your sake,” he replied. “This wouldn’t be the first time. If I find out you’re up to anything that isn’t PG-rated in there, my guys’ll drag your silver ass out into the street.”
I laughed, at which point he insisted that he wasn’t kidding.
Two lanky teen boys, stoned beyond repair, shuffled in and immediately doubled over in laughter at the scene they’d encountered. The manager took that as his cue to leave, but before the door swung shut he generously called over his shoulder, “Break a leg, Tin Man.”
Once I finished painting my face silver, I zipped up the unitard, put on a white dress shirt, and slipped into the vintage brown polyester leisure suit I saved for private events. I lugged my handmade wooden podium and man-purse through the bowling alley to the small private event space, which had a pool table and big windows looking out at the lanes. There was a stunned silence when I entered, then an explosion of adolescent laughter. I set the podium down in the corner and ascended.
Pamela squealed in delight. I immediately heard whispers among the kids that I was a stripper, but I ignored one young punk’s demand to “take it off” and stared with unwavering focus at a tacky framed print on the opposite wall featuring neon flying bowling balls with laser comet trails.
Who was I? How was I? Best not overthink it. Meditate on the money, deconstruct the laser balls. Don’t lash out at that teen bully “accidentally” poking you in the abdomen with the butt of his pool cue. Contemplate the timeless Aerosmith rendition of “Walk This Way” rattling from the drop ceiling. Only one hour and 56 minutes to go.
The important thing, besides the paycheck, was that Pamela seemed euphoric, laughing with her friends and playing pool while the Silver Man from Times Square stood in the corner like a trophy. But after about 45 minutes the teenagers had completely lost interest in my “doing nothing” shtick and had grown restless. The boys were half-heartedly sword-fighting with pool cues, while the girls tittered on the other side of the room, tentatively dancing together. So I snapped out of the deep freeze and started dancing robotically, then abruptly locking back into stillness.
The old “stop and start” routine elicited some momentary interest, but this was a tough room. Keeping a group of teenagers entertained with nothing but a pool table and soft drinks can be daunting.
Luckily, the timeless bass line to Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” soon started throbbing out of the speakers on the ceiling, and I knew what had to be done to get the party started. (Please listen to it as you read for the proper mood.)
Breaking my stillness with my hips in rhythm to the song’s slinking intro, I slid my hands provocatively up and down my torso and the front of my thighs, then slowly back up to the top button of my white shirt.
Realizing what was about to happen, the teens roared with approval as I deliberately popped one button after another, gradually exposing my silver unitarded chest. Pamela was only going to turn 16 once, and I intended to make it a night to remember. Within the bounds of ethical conduct and the laws of the state of New York.
The shirt undone and untucked, I slipped out of my jacket, letting it drop behind me. I then froze for a full minute, teasing the teens, who howled and shrieked deliriously, begging Silver Man to take it off, to take it all off. Behind them, leaning against the wall next to the laser balls, Tammy saluted me with a Coors banquet beer tallboy and whistled through her fingers.
Off came the shirt, which I swung over my head like a lasso and tossed at Pamela, whose hands gripped the sides of her face with an expression equal parts shock and delight.
As I spun in a circle, gyrating robotically and unzipping my pants, I noticed through the windows that most of the bowling out on the lanes had ground to a halt, and all eyes were on the silver guy “doing the robot” as his trousers shimmied down to his ankles. Please understand: two hundred dollars was almost half my rent at the time.
I spent the last 45 minutes of the gig beating the teens at pool while wearing nothing but the skin-tight unitard. At one point I was watching Pamela as she leaned across the table for a shot, and turned to see Tammy sitting on a high chair in the corner, checking me out as she sipped a cranberry-colored beverage. She waved me over.
“You should come to the afterparty,” Tammy told me, grabbing my unitarded hand. “It’s back at my place.”
“Silver Man’s coming to the afterparty?” one of Pamela’s friend’s squealed.
“There’s an afterparty?” Pamela asked.
“Thanks but I should probably head back, it’s a long commute,” I explained.
“Oh come on, it’s Pamela’s birthday, don’t be a wet unitard,” Tammy said. “Let’s go, you can change costumes back at the house. I’ll order some pizzas!”
The house was a typical ranch-style number with wall-to-wall carpeting, overstuffed furniture, and a big TV. The teens were in the living room playing video games and making each other laugh uproariously while I washed my face in the bathroom. Tammy tapped on the door.
“Got everything you need, Silver Man?” her drunken, disembodied voice asked.
“Yes, thank you!”
“I can’t believe you’re really here, a superhero using my bathroom!”
“This is really going to boost the resale value of the house.”
“Would you mind opening the door a second?”
Enter Tammy, with what appeared to be another vodka cranberry in one hand and a beer in the other. “Thought you could use a beer,” she said. “But I’m going to pour it into a cup for you—I don’t want the kids to see you drinking.”
“Thanks, Tammy,” I said as I dried off my face, trying to get a shirt on as soon as possible. There was a knock at the door, but because Tammy hadn’t shut it completely, it swung open.
“Oh Jesus, Mom, the Silver Man?” Pamela said, her face contorted into that expression of acute revulsion that is the immortal legacy of adolescent American girls.
“I was just bringing him a towel, get your mind out of the gutter!”
“Whatever. I hope she’s paying you extra for this,” Pamela said, glaring at me.
“Pamela! Don’t ruin a nice night,” Tammy said, walking toward her.
“You’re the one who’s throwing yourself at the mime!”
“It’s not mime,” I said, quietly and unnoticed.
Pamela marched away and her mother followed her into the hall, arguing. I tried to focus on the money, and by the time I finished changing, the party was breaking up. Seeing me without the silver for the first time, Pamela gave me a hug and said, “I’m sorry about my mom.”
“Not at all. She’s cool.”
“Ha, she tries.” Pamela replied.
The kids were relocating to someone else’s house, and as they cleared out, Tammy sat moodily sipping her drink at the kitchen counter. One of the kids offered me a ride to the subway station, but Tammy insisted on taking me—and departing at the same time as the others so they wouldn’t get the impression we were lingering alone together. The drive to the 2 train was sad and silent.
“Do you like Billy Joel?” she asked as “Captain Jack” came on the radio.
“No, but I can’t resist ‘Movin’ Out.’”
“OH MY GOD THAT IS MY FAVORITE TOO,” a suddenly animated Tammy declared. After a beat, “It’s such a long commute back, I feel bad. You’re welcome to crash at my place tonight.”
“Thanks, but I got a Bar Mitzvah tomorrow,” I lied.
She parked outside the subway and insisted on walking with me all the way up the stairs to the turnstiles. There she finally handed me the money in a white envelope, and as I reached to shake her hand she pulled me in for a kiss on the lips. She was lonely (and had just paid me a lot of money), and I didn’t feel right about immediately pushing her away, so I didn’t ... until her tongue tried to work its way into my mouth.
“I hope I made the party memorable,” I said as I stepped back.
“I’ll give you a buzz next time I’m in the city,” she called to me as I rushed through the turnstiles. I never saw her again.
In hindsight it wasn’t a bad gig, despite the awkward ending. Tammy and Pamela were real fans who treated me with respect, while at Bar Mitzvahs the kids typically spent the last hour pelting me with cheese cubes and ice. I once angrily shoved a boy to the floor at a party in Farmingdale after he jabbed me one too many times with a fork. I’ll never forget the terrified expression on his face as I stood over him screaming, “STOP POKING ME!”
“He’s the Bar Mitvah boy,” one of his friends objected, which was news to me, but by then I didn’t care any more. That was Silver Man’s last Bar Mitzvah, and as I rode the LIRR home that night, I thought about Pamela’s birthday party, and it occurred to me that the Yonkers bowling alley unitard striptease to “Radar Love” had in fact been a career highlight. It was all downhill from there.
N.B.: Some of these quotations are verbatim, others are approximations from memory, preserved through many oral recitations of this strange work experience over the years. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Art by Jim Cooke.