Farrel Thomas sits on a wooden stool, occasionally stealing away a quick spoonful of pudding before another child approaches, wide-eyed and slightly terrified.
This one wants a panda.
“You’re gonna make me work, huh?” Thomas barks.
His lumbering figure betrays impeccable technique. Claw-like hands work nimbly, bringing balloons to life. In seconds, rainbow-colored kittens, crowns, swords and flowers blossom from his weathered hands.
In Thomas’ line of work, you need a stage name that, well, pops. Mister Twister was taken, which is how he came to be known to many as the Balloon Man, which suits his own economy of words. Officially, though, he’s called Twister Thomas, and he’s twisted a decade’s worth of balloons directly under the giant neon clock at Pike Place Market.
Dressed as part swamp thing and part clown, Thomas wears a ketchup-red wig that clashes with his blond horseshoe mustache. He’s part of a pantheon of eccentrics, wanderers and troubadours that calls the market home.
Calling Pike Place Market home
Thomas lives just a stone’s throw away from his work station, at a HUD-subsidized redbrick apartment complex called the Stewart House. The rooms are small, to say the least, not much larger than a walk-in closet. But they’re cheap. Most of the single occupancy rooms rent for as little as $350 a month. Most residents who qualify for subsidies pay around 30 percent of their total income to live here. For a few lucky tenants on the fourth floor, sprawling views of downtown and Puget Sound are also included.
With more than 350 apartments here, Pike Place Market functions much like a small town within the city. And like any town, Pike Place Market has a newspaper — two, in fact. It also has a medical clinic, a food bank, a small governing body, and, of course, a great many produce stalls, butchers, bakeries, cafes, bars and restaurants. Unlike most small towns, though, about 10 million tourists pass through its nine acres each year.
Road to the market filled with twists and turns
Thomas, who spent decades working odd jobs in construction, came to the market in the ‘90s. After a leg injury shattered his dream of living a vagabond’s life on the road, he was turned on to the idea of balloon-twisting by a nameless clown in Portland.
Broke and living on street, Thomas moved back and forth between Tacoma and Seattle. He taught himself twisting techniques on the bus, using photocopied pictures out of library books as guides, spending many afternoons at Izzy’s Buffet.
“They kicked me out of the library for making too much noise. So, a fair trade was to blow balloons for an hour at the buffet restaurants and get a meal out of it. That’s where I learned the meaning of being a busker, barter or trader,” recalls Thomas.
Now, back to the little boy with the tall order of a panda-shaped balloon.
Thomas begins to twist, almost begrudgingly at first. His pace quickens, and soon enough he has rendered a few slack balloons into something that more or less resembles a panda. He curtly hands it off to the child.
Therein lies the magic of Twister Thomas’s work: like any performance artist, the charm is in watching him create. Thomas is one of many performers who live and work here. Each has a story.
‘It’s almost like being able to travel without moving’
Emery Carl is a lean and tall Kansas native in a long, rust-colored beard and, on brisk days, a Carhartt work jacket. In between drags from a hand-rolled cigarette, he speaks about his place in the world with a contained sense of wonder. Carl has lived and performed in the market since 2002.
“I really wanted to experience a wide variety of people and places in my life,” says Carl. “Being in Pike Place Market, it’s almost like being able to travel without moving.”
Like many market characters, he’s led a life of contrasts; it’s what anchors him here. He was once a worship director and youth pastor at a Seattle church. True to his former profession, he speaks with decided zeal for life and all its perplexities. He also served in the Air Force National Guard for a decade. Among other reasons, these experiences are what led him to become a street performer at Pike Place.
“I’ve always had a real heart and desire to serve God and country. It’s about people and humanity. It’s about serving your community and what you recognize as your creator,” he says. “I found an application that fits my heart right. It’s a big part of the inspiration and drive.”
A leap of faith
Carl’s drive is unmistakable. He performs all week long, and he’s hard to miss.
On any given afternoon, he’s usually on the corner of Pike Place and Stewart Street with bells and shells tied to his shoes, two guitars, a harmonica, Rubik’s cubes, and two or three of his signature hula hoops. His show is a literal balancing act — a guitar teeters on his chin while he strums another.
“I play behind my head while spinning in a circle and I’m singing to people. Sometimes I make up lyrics if I’m inspired by what people are wearing,” he says.
But performing on the street, even in a community as obliging as Pike Place Market, isn’t always easy. For Carl, life as a troubadour is a calculated risk, at least financially.
“I traded a faith-based income with the church for a ‘faith-based income’ [as a street performer].” I have no idea how much I’m going to make. Every tip is a miracle, and nobody has to [tip],” he says.
Perhaps for Carl, that’s the draw of life and work in the market: he gets to perform on his home turf every day. Even on a bad day, he’s in a place he loves.
His living arrangement here is more like a dark hideaway than an apartment, but it’s one that accommodates his unconventional lifestyle. For someone as accustomed to the limelight as he is, it’s a quiet refuge after a day’s work, mere steps away from the throngs of market visitors. For Carl, it’s home.
“Home is where the heart is,” he says with a laugh, “and I’ve got a big one.”
‘I’m going to have to be dead for them to get me out’
Beth Wasserman loves the market, she says, because it’s like her family: big, happy and dysfunctional. For about a year and a half, she has lived in the Stewart House and sold jewelry on Craft Row at the north end of Pike Place.
For Wasserman, there is no turning back from this lifestyle.
“I’m going to have to be dead for them to get me out of the market,” she says with a straight face.
But why? What is it about life and work here that is so appealing?
The answer is part financial and part philosophical, says Wasserman. The Stewart House remains one of the most inexpensive places to live in downtown Seattle. More importantly, the market is where she feels inspired, and where she says she has found a community of like-minded artists.
“Maybe we have gypsy blood. Maybe we like wandering. Maybe we don’t want to stay in one place or we’ve had a house for 30 years and decided ‘I don’t want this anymore; I want a freer lifestyle,’” she says.
For a ghost tour guide, a life among spirits
Like Thomas and Wasserman, James Pallata lives in the Stewart House, in an haunted apartment. It’s only fitting for Pallata, the lead tour guide of Market Ghost Tours.
“Things will just randomly shift at night. I’ve heard grunting. I’ve heard groaning. I’m the only one there, and it’s not me,” says Pallata.
It’s said that pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work, and for Pallata, a longtime horror fan, being paid to share some of the hair-raising accounts of this historic market is a dream job.
“I get to tell people about ghostly and sometimes horrific things. What more could I ask for?” he says.
‘It’s close to utopia’
Like any tour guide, Pallata is a good talker. When he’s not elaborating on the market’s paranormal underbelly, he speaks of Pike Place and his life here with endearment. For him, being a small part of the market’s 107-year history is an honor. He loves what he does, which brings him joy.
“As a representative of the market and as a tour guide, I like to share that joy,” he says.
Pallata is a self-described Army brat who has bounced around the world. At long last, it seems, he’s found a home, even if it is one he shares with spirits. For Pallata, that’s perhaps just part of its charm.
“Every morning I wake up and realize that I’m in Seattle, I’m doing backflips. It’s close to utopia,” he says. “Living in the market is just icing on the cake.”