The Brick and the Bum
“What’s with the brick?” Asked a man who wore, in the common style of 1901 New York, a loose suit and a tie that stopped at his naval. He looked at the bum who had just laid down a solitary brick. The bum had a few white wispy strands on his head, fingerless gloves and the foulest jacket the man had ever seen or smelled. Most peculiar to this bum was how intent he was on this unusual and seemingly pointless task. The man got no answer.
Moving slowly forward, the bum stood near a cross street in New York. Taking another brick he bent down and carefully placed it on the ground. Unsatisfied with the positioning, he bent down again and carefully aligned it at an exact 90-degree angle to the street.
Then he crossed it.
Five men walked up to the brick and stared down at it, and then they glanced up at the bum who had put it there. Without knowing the reason, they all chased after the bum. Why? They had all thought. Why on earth was he doing this?
“Say mister,” another man, his blue-brimmed hat falling down from his head. “What’s with the brick?”
The bum was intent. His face serious. He put down another brick as he had done before, except rather than positioning the brick at 90 degrees to the street, he made it exactly parallel to it.
And then he slowly walked ahead.
After he put down the fifth brick, the bum seemed weary. He looked up to see a big building with the words “American Museum—Curiosities of the World Captured by P.T. Barnum.” Wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead, he moved up the stairway and into the museum. He grabbed a ticket from a man in a red jacket and then began to examine the curiosities.
The questioners on the street, who had followed the bum through his circuitous bricklaying route, were now twenty in number. They followed him into the museum. They all bought tickets.
Ten minutes later, the bum exited through the back door and made the exact same circuit, this time drawing an even larger crowd of curious onlookers. All, once again, followed the beggar into P.T. Barnum’s Museum of Curiosities.
This went on for several days until the audience of onlookers grew so large a police officer informed the bum that he must desist immediately.
But P.T. Barnum’s museum was the talk of the town. Thousands had entered and become converts, thus spreading the word for the great showman.
When the bum had approached Barnum several days earlier, he was looking for a handout. Instead he got a job. He was asked to walk a circuitous route carrying at least two bricks at a time. Then at a specific point he was to carefully lay down a brick. Never answer questions, he was told, and never acknowledge anyone around you. His job was simply to place the bricks and make it seem as important as heart surgery.
Curious about Barnum and the brick, when the bum went to collect his paycheck, he inquired where Mr. Barnum had come up with the idea for the brick.
In his loud booming voice that would one day become famous, he said “Ah! I learned that one from a lynch mob.”
The bum begged for more, “And what did you learn?”
“At the start of my career I worked for a grand conjurer of crowds, Aaron Turner. He owned a circus. On my first show in Annapolis, Maryland, I was walking on a cloud, so excited with anticipation was I. Then, out of nowhere, a woman hurled a piece of lettuce right at my brand new suit!” Barnum paused for effect and his faced turned red as if it had happened merely seconds earlier. “Ma’am, said I, what is the meaning of this? She was about to spit on me, so I quickly walked away. But she followed me. Then a man, big as a mountain, followed me too. ‘Bastard!’ they said, ‘Heathen!’ ‘Devil!’ Then more men and women and more and more. Eventually a mob surrounded me and called for a lynching. They called me a murderer. ‘You, Ephraim K. Avery are going to hell,’ one woman screamed.
“Ephraim asked I? Oh, no no no, you have me mistaken. I am Mr. Barnum.
‘We don’t believe you,’ “they said.
“At this point they brought out the rope. I begged them. Please, I said, let me prove it. Take me to Mr. Turner at the circus. I work for him. Please don’t hang an innocent man!
“And so they took me to Mr. Turner. He cleared everything up and apologized. The whole thing had gone too far. It was meant only to be a practical joke.
“The crowd dispersed, but I was furious, as I’m sure you can imagine. Before I could speak, Mr. Turner said ‘My Dear Mr. Barnum. It was all for our good. Remember all we need to ensure success is notoriety.’
“And boy was he right. That practical joke was the talk of the town. And so was the circus associated with it. We sold out for every show while we were in town.”
Barnum pulled out a small wad of cash and paid the bum. And without another word he walked away.
P.T. Barnum was the greatest showman in America, because he always learned the golden rule of show business: Every crowd has a silver lining. The quality of the crowd is irrelevant.
Upon opening a new curiosity museum, for instance, he would announce FREE MUSIC TO THE MILLIONS and place a band on the opposite balcony to his museum. But he would hire the worst musicians he could find. People flocked to the free music and bought tickets to his museum in order to escape the atrocious screeching.
All his life Barnum would apply the lesson he learned from Turner. He learned to court attention at all costs, even negative attention would suffice. So long as they came.
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Title: The Brick and the Bum
Lesson: Peak people’s curiosity in order to draw them to you
Title: A Story in Stone
Lesson: A master never argues; a master always shows.
Title: Don’t Lose Your Head over Eldorado
Lesson: Plan for all conceivable obstacles and outcomes
Title: The Magician’s Power
Lesson: Practice in Secret
Title: King Deioces Rules the World
Lesson: The Power of Absence
Title: A Life Lesson From a Troubadour
Lesson: “Absence diminishes minor passions and inflames great ones, as the wind douses a candle and fans a fire.”
Title: Coriolanus for President!
Lesson: Too much talking can bring you harm. Learn to say enough but not too much.