A passing woman sees him and tries to hide her face from his gaze. Too late.
The traffic light by the Fox Theatre has just released a burst of Tigers fans heading to the ballpark on a spring weekday evening. But first they must get past the street performers who line the way there, including the animated sax player, the deranged "Eat 'em up, Tigers" guy, and the man who rattles the nerves of passers-by the most — the one banging out beats on congas and shouting out a steady flow of spontaneous rhymes that point out a passing person's peculiarities, or comment on their clothes, or assess their significant other in frank terms.
The woman approaches, and Bongo Man, as he calls himself, has her in his sights.
"Now that pretty lady in the gray / I'm so glad that you came this way / Smile and don't be sad / Your husband's not that bad / Find a reason to be glad / At least I'm not your baby dad," he rhymes to her and her spouse.
A few in the passing crowd chuckle, but like this couple, most avoid eye contact with him, in fear he'll select them and reel off a few zingers at their public expense. In rhyme, no less.
A man using a wood cane walks by. He catches Bongo Man's eye.
"Now here's a cool guy with a cane / I know this may sound insane / Now what happened to your leg? / Did you drink the whole keg?" This could mean a few different things, but the man's stony face suggests none of them strike him as funny.
The traffic light turns red, creating a pause in the stream of fans. Bongo Man twists the cap off a glass orange juice bottle and takes a sip of water. "This is not vodka!" he announces, an old joke but also a reference to some people's suggestion that he and the other street performers are little more than bums with talent.
He doesn't drink, though. Hasn't in years, he says. Plus he has a home, and a job, and another job on top of that. And unlike the panhandlers hustling around the ballpark, he offers something for the money he seeks, even if that something is a few squirmingly uncomfortable moments at the center of attention.
He looks down into his tips bucket. It holds two one-dollar bills, a five, a possibly used ticket for tonight's game (upper box, infield), and a handful of change so far. Not nearly enough. The flow must go on.
Another crowd is let loose by a green light and comes his way. He starts again.
"Here's a guy in the tan and black / He might cut me a little slack / I realize this job is wack / But at least I'm here not selling crack." This logic strikes Mr. Tan-and-Black as impeccable, and he puts a dollar into the bucket.
Though the mere sight of him frightens the self-conscious, Nahru Lampkin, 50, is friendly and soft-spoken when he's not behind the congas. He grew up in Michigan, served in the Army, held several jobs afterward, got and got rid of a drug habit, had two children and spent years perfecting this street act, starting at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, later in Florida, then finally in Detroit when he came back home.
He first performed in Hart Plaza during the summer festivals, where he drove the police crazy. They arrested him five times on five different charges — panhandling, obstructing the sidewalk, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and performing without a permit, even though the city didn't have a permit for street performers to perform under. The cops would tell him to move on, he'd refuse, and they'd conjure up a new charge and take him to jail.
"I wanted to have my day in court," he says. "Each time I kicked their butt too." Eventually they gave up, and he added new stages — Lions games at Ford Field, Red Wings games at Joe Louis Arena, University of Michigan games in Ann Arbor. But his main venue became Tigers games downtown.
The man works constantly. He just started his own cab company, Bongo Man Taxi, a one-vehicle operation for which he's both driver and dispatch. His cab features an image of him and a bongo emblazoned on the cab's red door. It operates in off-hours, like 3 a.m. outside the Marriott hotel in the Ren Cen during the week, or downtown Royal Oak starting at midnight on the weekends.
He also teaches robotics at Highland Park Community High School, a career he fell into — he was working yet another job, this time as a school security guard, and was sitting outside the science lab when a student asked for help solving a problem with the little robot he was putting together. Soon a half-dozen other kids saw this and asked for his help too, and when a teacher noticed and made a complaint, the robotics coach not only didn't yell at him, he saw how good he was at it and made Lampkin the assistant coach. That same year the class won the Vex Middle School World Championship in robotics. The school promoted him to robotics instructor.
In his sporadic spare time between those two careers, he's out here on the street, rhyming in your face, sometimes even about your face.
The crowd pours into the park. Most walk briskly by, some smile or laugh at his lyrics, one or two offer to buy the congas. A few have run off with his bucket of tips. And a handful are openly hostile, or worse.
"This guy says, 'Get a job, you nigger!' And so I put him in the show. I said, 'Well, that guy called me a nigger / He's just mad 'cause my johnson is bigger.'"
These incidents are rare, but it does happen now and then, he says. "There is some very blatant and overt racism that still exists, and every now and then it's actually good for a huge crowd of white people to see that, because the average white person don't think it's that blatant. The guy was right in the middle of the crowd and he said it loud, so everyone just gasped and looked to see what my reaction would be. I just smiled. And because of my reaction, which they probably expected to be more violent, when they saw that I just took it in stride, I made a lot of money on that day."
A woman with a five-drink swagger in her walk approaches and starts banging on his conga, then dances off without leaving a tip. Bongo Man's flow takes a turn.
"Now a cute young lady playing my drum / But then forgot to drop me some / Apparently she's kind of dumb / And I'm not the only bum."
Most of his rhymes are simple and spontaneous, based on a blur of an encounter and some quick thinking. He tells kids to say "excuse me" when they fart. Admires the canes of the blind. Suggests he's robbed your house before. But most of his on-the-fly poetry is harmless and even flattering, he insists.
"I'm always complimenting people — 'that beautiful woman,' 'that cool guy.' You know, people love and need to be complimented, and it really validates them. They spend a great deal of their time watching images of beauty that don't look like them, so when I acknowledge whatever beauty they happen to come through with, they're appreciative. They'll go in and they'll be thinking about it the whole time."
A chance to offer some of these sweet nothings presents itself as a pretty woman enters his field of vision. He addresses her and her date.
"That lovely woman in the black / Done near gave me a heart attack / Is that pretty lady with you, jack? / You must be some kind of mack / Your girlfriend is really stacked / Your baby got front and back," he hollers, then shifts his rhythm without losing his focus. "Consider yourself a winner / But take your lady out to dinner / And then she might let you in her." They look back aghast, then giggle. They don't tip, though.
But one man just behind them appreciates Bongo Man's unique style of flattery, and shows it with a laugh, and then he drops a dollar bill into the bucket.