Black widows under toilet seats, great whites approaching the shore, swans in international flight paths — we’re so often unaware of where the next attack is coming from. And never more so than when walking in a busy city, focused on a smartphone.

There’s an app out there that let’s you text and see the live feed from your camera’s phone at the same time. It’s a joke: making it safe to text while you walk! But it’s also a sad reflection of our insular existences.

In San Francisco, a carefree teenager leaves the Waffle Cone Shop on Pier 39 and walks towards Embarcadero. He’s using that app! He thinks it’s pretty useful – avoiding people, cars, trashcans and lampposts. But he’s a victim waiting to happen.

This story is not about traffic accidents, twisted ankles or iPhone calamities. This story is about a genius, a city predator.

Ride a bus or train and everyone will be in their own little worlds of iPod, iPad, Kindle, iPhone, smart-phone, Nook, Blackberry or whatever. Sit in any coffee shop and tables will be crowed with laptops; people meeting for coffee but never speaking to each other.

I’m not criticizing; I do it all the time.

The same exists on the streets. Take our tech-savvy teenager, let’s call him Bob. Bob has made it to the Pier 23 Café, but he couldn’t tell you that. He’s stuck in his bubble, walking from A to B without thinking, without engaging with the world.

It takes something pretty drastic to pop that bubble. In San Francisco it takes The Bush Man.

The Bush Man is a genius.

The Bush Man picks his victims carefully. “I never pick on pregnant ladies or old folks,” he told us. “I don’t scare people with hot drinks.”

Bob is just one of many walking along The Embarcadero. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone. He ignored the Electric Violinist outside the Seismic Joint Eatery. His world is shrunk. He doesn’t notice the crowded line of people along the sidewalk, all of them focused on a single trashcan, partly obscured by some discarded tree branches.

I call them victims, but it’s better to think of them as patients and The Bush Man as their doctor, prescribing medicine that doesn’t taste very good but is sorely needed.

Some sixth sense from our hunter-gatherer days should warn Bob; his subconscious should be picking up on the signs of trap well laid. At the very least, his iPhone should have an app to save him.
It’s impossible to write the sound The Bush Man makes as he launches himself out from behind his branches. Part roar, part scream, part god-like telepathy straight to your limbic system.
Bob shrieks and leaps backwards. Terror has taken over. His body moves with a muscle twitch jump and he flings his arms over his head and turns away from, from…? A man sitting on an upturned milk crate, hiding again (badly) behind some broken off tree branches.
Within seconds Bob’s terror turns to anger, then fury. Then, like his bubble, it all deflates as he sees the obviousness of the trap; the massive group of people standing not meters away crying with poorly contained hilarity. His embarrassment quickly morphs into curiosity, his phone is pocketed and he joins the crowd as The Bush Man selects his next victim. 

Is The Bush Man simply taking advantage of the easiest way to make people laugh, maybe the cruelest, by making fun of other people? Or is his message a little deeper?

I’ve heard cities described cities in terms of red space and white space. San Francisco is full of red spaces – where people don’t make eye contact and don’t interact. The Bush Man has forged out a large chunk of white space, but he has to sacrifice a bunch of people to achieve it.

The best thing here is that once sacrificed, you are born again into a world that is a little more open and a little more vivid, you pay attention and see things with new eyes, at least for a while.

Whether he means it or not, I think The Bush Man is the clearest example one of the most important elements of street performance – this awakening into a world that is bigger than you.