Absolute blank; infinite void; totally empty. I am standing in front of a man in a suit, ready to give me a penny for my thoughts, and it is now that my mind goes completely vacant. I look at him, smile awkwardly, and let the silence do the talking.
But I must start from the beginning. I woke up today with a start, grabbed my phone quickly and checked the time. I got up, put Scissor Sister‘s Magic Hour on the speakers, scoffed down a bowl of cereal and jumped in the shower.
Minutes later I was in a crowded hot bus, that was following the London Good Weather Rule: when the sun shines, everything slows down. We were going at a snail’s pace, but so was everything around us; people seemed to stroll down the street; the power-suits were replaced with summer dresses, and the briefcases with canvas bags.
It felt as if everything around me was going in slow motion, while my insides were fast forwarding; my heart was racing, I had a deadline, and the bus was so hot. I decided to press the stop button (repeatedly), and get off, as my to-do list was burning my pocket; I had an infinite amount of chores to finish, and determined to finish on time, I went in super efficient mode, completing everything way before I expected to. I found myself startled when I crossed the final thing on my list 2 hours after setting off to do it. I blinked hard, scanned the list again, and opened my mouth as if to say something; nothing came out.
I was close to Southbank, so I decided to kill some time in the Tate Modern shop. I looked around, decided on a budget on my purchases, broke my budget, payed and walked out with two bags and a latte.
I walked out of the main entrance, and stopped. The grass in front of Tate was filled with people soaking up the sun, in various stages of undress, alone, in groups, with drinks and ice creams, smiles and pouts, mechanical fans and oversized hats. Tourists were taking pictures next to Damien Hirst’s Hymn (a giant anatomy model of the human body in the courtyard), pointing at various organs and giggling.
Just as I was thinking that it is impossible to resist loving London in the summer, a man caught my attention from the corner of my eye. I did a double take, not really sure what I was seeing.
He was sitting outside of the grass area, on a mat. His grey suit defied the weather, and the overall scruffy look that he was sporting, with his retro sunglasses and his fluorescent green digital watch. He was sat in the middle of a mountain of pennies, and had a sign in front of him. The sight reminded me of Scrooge McDuck, swimming in his pool of coins, and that fact alone made me curious; what was written on the sign? What did this man want?
I stopped for a bit, backtracked and looked at the reactions of the bypassers. Most of them ignored him. The ones that noticed him, seemed to dismiss him as homeless or a beggar. But something did not add up.
My curiosity won in the end, and I noticed that I was walking in his direction. I stopped in front of him, smiled, and read the sign.
Penny For Your Thoughts.
He grabbed a penny from the pile next to him, extended his hand to me, and held it there.
Crap. I can not think of anything. What are my thought? Think of something. Anything. Lyrics from a song, lines from a movie, memorable quotes from coffee mugs or coasters. Nothing. Not a single thing. The only thing that came out was ‘I feel stressed’.
The man smiled, looked at me, and asked me why am I stressed in such a nice day. Truth be told, I did not have an answer to that. All my chores were done, I had just bought a library’s worth of books and I was in the middle of the loveliest city on a sunny day. Why was I stressed? And then it hit me. All of these thoughts were not there before; just the emotion. I was too consumed in feeling stressed, and I did not allow myself to question why.
I smiled to the man again, shrugged and said, ‘I don’t know’. We started talking, and I learned that his name is Martin, and he is a performance artist. Penny for Tour Thoughts is a piece he has presented in Liverpool and Manchester, and is performing in London for the first time. Martin is relying to curious bystanders and their perception of him. ‘People pass and see someone in a suit, and they think, is this guy begging for money? My presence here, my purpose is to confound their expectations, to engage them’, he says, and flashes a grin. So, why here, why in Southbank outside of Tate Modern? ‘Well, I am not sure what makes a good spot, or what makes a spot at all. It would be interesting to see what people’s reactions are here, and what people’s reactions are in other places, like in the middle of the City!’.
We talked for a few more minutes, during which he told me that even though it had been a bit slow during the day, he is there until the end of the week, handing pennies for thoughts and startling people.
I got up, and felt lighter. I had a penny in my pocket, and a smile on my face. I looked around, and with my next step, I decided to join the slow-motion crowd. I went in a cafe, had chocolate cake and strawberry milk for lunch, and walked along Thames, breathing slowly, blinking, taking it all in.
Penny for your thoughts.