Hollywood Boulevard is strangely empty and quiet on a recent Saturday afternoon when I stop at Famina!! — the Japanese “super convenience” store — and spot Jack Sparrow, or at least a guy impersonating the flamboyant Johnny Depp character from Pirates of the Caribbean. Sparrow sits at one of the Famina!! outdoor tables, a collection of Starbucks drinks before him. Costume jewelry adorns his fingers, his long chin hairs are tied into twin tails, and his full pirate regalia is battered. I pick out a neatly wrapped box of shrimp nigiri along with some turkey salad, and then take a seat next to the eyeliner-wearing Depp doppelgänger and begin pulling and hacking at the plastic packaging protecting my lunch.
“Is that kiwi-and-strawberry drink good?” asks the rapper kid at the next table.
I take a sip of my Naked Juice. “Not bad,” I say. “And at more than three bucks, it’d better be.”
Rapper kid nods. “I’ve had just about every one of those except for that one. Red, green, blue, yellow… Hey,” he asks Jack Sparrow, “will you watch my stuff for a second?”
Sparrow agrees, and rapper kid runs inside to get an energy drink.
“You know where you can get those cheaper?” Sparrow asks and then immediately answers. “At the Starbucks down the street. Around two bucks.”
“Huh. Thanks for the tip,” I say, and then notice that cars and pedestrians are starting to return to the Boulevard. “Why was the street all blocked off?”
“A big march,” Sparrow explains. “Those people… you know, against the borders.”
“I see. How’s business?” Business being the art of convincing tourists around Hollywood and Highland to pay Sparrow for appearing in snapshots with them. On any given afternoon in front of the Kodak and Chinese theaters, out-of-towners mingle with Spider-Man, Michael Jackson, SpongeBob and other larger-than-life characters. These impersonators can get aggressive while plying their trade — Elmo and Mr. Incredible were arrested in 2005 for pestering tourists, and last month Chewbacca was handcuffed for head-butting a Starline tour guide — but Sparrow seems relaxed despite his massive Starbucks intake.
“Business is good,” he says as rapper kid returns with his drink. “I make my living studying patterns and statistics.”
“By studying patterns, I know which tourists are likely to get a shot with me.”
Sparrow, whose real name is Mike and is from Texas, explains that he lets the tourists come to him. If he approaches them, he says, they think he’s too pushy and needy. So he usually just hangs out, talks to his friends, acts normal and waits.
As he talks, a group of tourists spot Sparrow, and they laugh and wave at him as they pass. Sparrow smiles and waves back. “How are you today?” he asks them. They love it.
Rapper kid finishes his energy drink and heads back onto the Boulevard. An older man in a sports jacket takes his place.
“I played Edward Scissorhands first,” Sparrow tells me. “People always told me I looked like Depp. When Pirates came out, I thought ‘Depp… me… Pirates.’ It just made sense.” He’s been doing Jack Sparrow for the past three years, and the character has served him well. It’s not hard to see why — he’s put considerable effort into his weathered pirate look. Not to mention that the skinny hustler has a calm intensity reminiscent of the whole cast of Johnny Depp characters.
“I started out on Skid Row, and then made my way to the Boulevard. Now I have a good job, a girlfriend, and I’m getting married this month.”
“Congrats!” I say.
“Thanks.” Sparrow grins.
“I’ve learned a lot working out here,” Sparrow says in a voice softer than Depp’s but similarly melodic. “The Boulevard is like a poker match; check your emotions at the door.”
A Boy Scout troop walks past. “How much would you charge those guys for a shot?” I ask.
“No charge for them. Those kids listen to their parents. They do what they’re supposed to. If only more teens would do that.”
“What else has the Boulevard taught you?”
“Everyone has their own rhythm. Everyone’s walking around to their own song. I just know what mine is.”
“Now, you may laugh, but it’s actually a really good song to have — the Bee Gees’ ‘Staying Alive.’ Everyone thinks it’s a gay thing because every time there’s a gay scene in a movie, that song comes on. But it’s not a gay thing. If you listen to the first line, it’s about confidence: ‘Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk. Music loud and women warm. I’ve been kicked around since I was born.’ ”
Confidence is important in Sparrow’s line of work, and in other areas of his life too. With girls, for instance. “Here’s a bit of advice about women,” he says. “If you go to a movie with a girl and she orders a drink, don’t ask if it’s diet. I learned that one the hard way.”
The guy in the suit has gotten up and is making a pirate joke to some ladies sitting beside me.
Sparrow looks down and says quietly, “Pirates are some of the most trustworthy people I’ve met in Hollywood. They’ve worked for what they have. When someone works for what they have, that’s a person you can trust.”
I nod at this last bit of wisdom. When I’m done with my salad, I shake hands with Jack Sparrow and head off toward the rest of my Saturday. Sparrow has one more Starbucks drink to finish before returning to the Boulevard.