life lesson

The One Thing They Remember

After I graduated from college I moved to Los Angeles as soon I could. I knew if I put it off then I would never go.

I had $500 and two bags of props. My computer stopped working soon after, so I’d sneak into a college library to check my e-mail.

I read everything I could and worked tirelessly to get my name in front of people. I’d take gigs off Craigslist and donate my services to charity functions. But nothing seemed to stick.

Then, another performer gave me some advice:

“You need to find the thing that defines you - your one trick that people will remember you for.”

So I set out on a quest to find my trademark performance piece, the one thing that would become synonymous with the name “Mark Toland”.

I tried it all.

I worked on hypnosis but (and this is absolutely true) I kept falling asleep during the course.

I worked on advanced material from classic performers. I studied circus arts and sideshow stunts, hoping I would discover the one thing that would set me apart.

Then, I stumbled across something incredible. I found a video of someone walking barefoot on broken glass. At the time, it was a demonstration that few people were performing. It was so rare, in fact, that I couldn’t find any instructions for it.

So I taught myself.

Some friends had just moved out of their apartment and I claimed a long carpet that they had left behind. I went to the Dollar Store up the street and found two heavy-duty plastic buckets and a hammer.

At the time I was living in a tiny, smelly apartment with six roommates. I was sleeping in a literal closet, with a tiny mattress shoved up against the wall. There was no A/C and no space. I called it “the crack den.” But, my roommates were big drinkers and gladly let me “recycle” their bottles.

Soon I had collected over a hundred bottles and had filled both of my buckets with broken glass. Once a day, I’d lay out the blue and white striped runner in the parking lot behind the crack den. And for a couple hours I’d work up the nerve to step across the glass without wearing any shoes.

I cut myself too many times to remember but I kept at it. Eventually, I performed it for a show in Long Beach, then a show in Hollywood, and another in Santa Monica.

It was a staple of the act.

I didn’t have a car so I’d take my trusty buckets with me on the city bus. I’d ride two hours to a gig, then two hours back home. I walked on broken glass in a barbershop downtown, at rooftop parties, and even poolside at a movie producer’s home in the Hollywood Hills.

Often, I’d get off the bus several blocks away from my show so the client wouldn’t know I didn’t have a vehicle. Then I’d haul the glass and my other props the rest of the way to the show.

Once I was trudging along a dark street late at night, trying to find the correct address for my gig, when I ran into a hard-to-see fire hydrant. I yelped in pain and grabbed my shin, releasing the buckets at the same time. Glass spilled onto the sidewalk.

Little did my client know, but I spent the last few minutes before I rang their doorbell picking up a hundred broken bottles worth of glass with my bare hands and putting the pieces back into my buckets. If they had opened their doors they would have seen the “world class entertainer” they had hired crawling around the sidewalk on his hands and knees in a three piece suit.

But I stuck with it, convinced it was my claim to fame. I did it on TV and in at least 20 states. At one point I had backup stashes of broken glass in three states (Illinois, Texas, and Florida) and joked I was going to “have a set in all 50”. I was half-kidding.

Then, it got popular. I saw other people doing it more and stopped doing it as much. I got tired of driving to gigs and started flying. The glass stayed home.

Eventually, I only brought it out for special occasions in Chicago. Then, I stopped bringing it out altogether. It went in a closet, locked away and forgotten.

Until last month. After an apartment renovation and a quick break between the tour and the fall schedule, I was reassessing my closet of show props and production equipment. And that’s when I found the broken glass.

I took a long look at it and realized what I had to do. I boxed it up and put it in the recycling.

At one point I was certain that I would be walking barefoot on broken glass for years to come. I was sure that it was the spectacle that would put me on the map. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t.

It took hundreds of bottles, cuts, bloody towels, broken buckets, busted shins, and long drives to have a simple realization. It took those three years of storing the glass in the back of my closet to fully get it. I finally understood that the advice that other performer gave me back in L.A. was wrong.

I had spent all of that time working to find my calling card but the most progress I made was when I had spent time working on myself. People weren’t wanting to see the mind reading or the broken glass. They were wanting to see me.

The truth is, it’s not a skill or a trademark product, it’s not a signature piece or a notable work that’s going to make your name. It’s not the art - it’s the artist.

The one thing they remember is you.