Wednesday, December 3, 2008

yo-yo #2: sayco tournament yo-yo

sayco tournament yo-yo

in july of this year, i dragged the wife and kids up north to visit family in new england. ok, so they went willingly, but the 32 hours in the car felt distinctly like "dragging". i've gone up there almost every year since i was an infant, and the scene at my aunt lorraine's house in manville, ri is always raucous, hilarious, and warm.

their house (purchased some years ago from my maternal grandparents) is old, and the side street to it is more cracked and weathered than walter matthau's face. my mom used to tell stories of how she fell down on it and jammed a loose piece of black asphalt into her knee, which lodged there eternally. she carries a piece of old river road with her everywhere, still. i guess so do i, but i don't have the pebble.

aunt lorraine is married to uncle tom, an art teacher. their son, jack and i are of similar age, and whatever distance lies between us, i will always count him among my most trusted friends. uncle tom is another matter. when i was in middle school, jack and i used to go 2-on-2 in any sport against any pairing of uncles. neither of us will forget the drubbing we received at the hands of my father, "big ed", and our monolithic uncle john bryer when we challenged them to the dumbest, manliest game ever, 2-on-2 football. i think we lost 49-0. we met with much greater success against my dad and his dad in 2-a-side baseball (no less idiotic, really). as we ran up the score against them, uncle tom's anger became palpable. i did not help matters when i started talking serious trash or 'calling my shots', and by the end, he and i were embroiled in a full on scream-off. we both later apologized (kind of), but i still think about that day every time i go up there. it's funny, the little things we hang on to.

anyway, fast forward to july 2008. everyone in the family knows i yo-yo, probably because i'm effing obnoxious about doing it all over the place. uncle tom, being no exception, approached me and asked if i was interested in meeting an old-time yo-yoer. as someone who's kind of into where yo-yoing comes from (see: yo-yo #1), i wondered who he meant. he shocked me by saying "his name's larry sayco". i had read a little about him via some web research at some point, and had heard more from people who had never met him, but knew of his legend.

larry sayco was an old duncan demonstrator in the 50's, and later broke away to form his own company. he used to sell his yo-yo's far and wide, but stopped suddenly when people began to take advantage of his generously low prices to mark them up in sales and auctions. now he only sells his wares at shows and functions, and has zero contact with what we'll term "the yo-yo community". (it was through an annual show at my uncle's school that they had become acquainted.)

although i had seen footage of him doing 2-handed loops while standing on top of a moving car, and had heard of his prolific skill as a performer, i was in no way prepared for our meeting. when we pulled up at his workshop (a non-descript, 400-square-foot brick oven in what appeared to be a non-descript, 800-square-foot town), rain was falling in torrents. my uncle and i (along with my two young cousins; the sons of the aforementioned "monolithic" john bryer) knocked and entered, and i was amazed to find that mr. sayco stood about 5'2. he honestly seemed bigger in the pictures on my computer than in real life. he was extremely cordial, and asked "so who's the champ?" evidently, my uncle had prevarocated regarding my skill, and i came up empty when i tried to imagine him bragging about me to anyone.

his workshop was totally cluttered by knick-knacks and papers (but few yo-yo's). his walls were plastered with news-clippings of his old performances. every photograph featured a grinning man with shining eyes, a pork pie hat, and knickers doing some extra-cheesy picture tricks, most of which i had never heard of ("tonto's mask"?). the few yo-yo's that could be seen were of old-school plastic ilk. ultra-thin and devoid of any label, they looked like duncan "professionals" with opaque sidecaps. the majority of the space itself was taken up by several large, ancient industrial machines, and as we "toured the facility', mr. sayco described the function of each.

all of the machines had been gingerly tinkered with. he was most proud of the string-twisting machine that he had constructed from spare parts. he claimed to have designed one for duncan before leaving the company, but was embittered over not being able to take it with him. we saw the immense machine where the molds for the different sayco yo-yo pieces (of which there are two) were pressed together. mr. sayco patted that machine like a trusty steed, saying "and this one cost me a mint... a MINT!" he also had a special press that fit the finished pieces together efficiently and tightly. he built a yo-yo for us from scratch, and quickly wound it a type 9 string.

then he started playing with it.

this dude looks about 90. he's seriously old, and waddles around like some leprous piece of him is about to break off and get lost on the floor amidst the detritus of 40 years of yo-yo making. but, dude can THROW. nothing even remotely new-school. lots of next-gen players would watch him and only vaguely recognize it as yo-yoing. there was no distinguishing between looping and string tricks. everything was interwoven. his loops were pristine, and he knocked a penny off my cousin's ear ("'cause quarters are cheating!"). he drilled bank deposit into his pants pocket 3 straight times, then punch-regenned into my cousin's pocket. it was like what i imagine kareem abdul-jabbar would be like as a centenarian. he could be ancient, withered, and wheelchair-bound on the street, but put him on the hardcourt and he'd not only walk, but redefine grace.

he asked to see my yo-yo (a luchador), and said he "yeah, i invented that". when i looked incredulous (having helped test the first prototypes), he explained that he meant he was part of a group of guys who came up with the idea for the butterfly-shaped yo-yo, not the luchador, specifically. although he dropped a few names, he explained that he was thoroughly independent from "yo-yoing". he just wasn't interested in being connected to other yo-yoers anymore. it was a fun job, but a job. he was attached neither to the glory days, nor to the fact that the yo-yo world had left him behind decades ago. he had left us there, too.

part of me wanted to say "you would blow peoples' minds! let me get you on youtube!" but thinking about it, i realized that he was so far beyond the need to show his skill off to others, the idea wouldn't be worth a thought. he had spent years winning contests, years on the road, years designing and building yo-yo's, years performing for kids bar mitzvahs. he had literally spent a lifetime in yo-yoing, and though he understood that "things had changed", he was also secure enough to understand that nothing important had. it's still playing with yo-yo's after all. the pettiness of my thought (and my yo-yoing) just seemd obscene in that moment.

as we walked out the door, he tossed me the yo-yo he had made. a scorched odor was still emanating from the axle. it was thin; half the width of many popular models today. like an awestruck teenager, i asked if he'd sign it, and he flashed to his workbench, where he used an electric dremel to engrave a quick signature onto the back cap. he tossed it back again and smiled meaningfully. "now, don't forget where it comes from," he said. i took 'it' to signify more than that particular yo-yo.

in the car on the way back, my cousins were aglow. it was clear that they'd been hooked on yo-yoing, and that, true to their own generation, they'd be on the internet researching it within an hour. my uncle and i exchanged no words that i recall, but i will never again associate him first with a rotten squabble over a childhood ballgame.

i still rock that yo-yo from time to time. it loops well. the gap is about the width of the cotton string on it, so string mounts have to be flawless. eli hops are seriously tough, and anything more modern is pointless. when i pick it up, i think of two things. i think of the gnome-like yo-yo hermit who generously gave it to me. and i remember that to be a yo-yoer, you don't have to find yourself caught up in yo-yo drama all the time, or ever. simply picking it up and throwing it with respect (and maybe a nod to all that have come before) is quite enough.


elvibro said...

I was just trying to teach my 7 yr old how to use her yo-yo - and recounting to her and my wife that i was taught how to use a yo-yo by Mr. Sayco himself and she said "who"?- my wife is from Indiana - but I was still shocked she didn't know him and she never had heard of the duncan yo-yo brand -
Mr. Sayco would come into the housing project I lived entertaining like a street performer crowds of us kids mostly between the ages of 2 & 15 - after his performance he would sell his yo-yo's -I remember how nice and helpful he was. teaching us the basics - I have many fond memories of my yo-yo days. Mr. sayco was old then in the 70's- he must be close to a hundred now!
The Duncan people would come in with sales people arrogant, cocky types not the personable showman that Mr.sayco was - with them (the Duncan people) I always felt like I was being sold - we were poor kids in ghetto and Mr. Sayco made us feel special He would always give one or two yo-yo's away and spend time even after there was no money to be made - we were all fans of his

Brian said...

I saw Mr Sayco perform about 25 years ago old at a county fair in Southern Mass when I was 10yrs. I bought a red and blue yo-yo from him that is the exact same shape as the one the one he gave you. I also had him sign it. I keep it on my desk and constantly throw it around when I bored or need to think. Thanks for the post. Does he still sell his yo-yo anywhere?


John said...

Larry is now at a nursing facility. His shop was sold.

donburt said...

I knew him as Larry Sayer, a name he apparently used for awhile. He came to Lincoln Nebraska in the early '50's. He actually dated my older sister while he was in town, having met her at a Kresge store where she was working and he was performing and selling Duncan yoyos. He held a city-wide yoyo contest and I finished 3rd, not bad for a twelve-year-old! I've always remembered him, but only recently discovered that most of the world knew him as Larry Sayco. Don Burt

Mike said...

Does anyone know if his yoyos are still sold anywhere? I met him as a child somewhere in the mid-80s, and had a couple of his yoyos. I cherished those things. He left a long lasting impression on me. He was amazing. As i got older I dont know what became of those yoyos. My parents either gave them away or discarded them. It makes me sad to think about it. I wish my children had the chance to meet him. He was one of my childhood heros.

Robert Massarelli said...

I saw someone talking about old yo yo's on TV . I started telling my wife about this guy in a hat with knickers that would come to the Dedham Ma town fair every year and do great yo yo tricks and sign a Duncan yo yo for us. Then I do a random search and find your story about the same man, hat, knickers and all. Great to see.