March 2014

Mairead Case

features

Life of a Clown

Ten years ago, a lot of my friends worked for magazines. I did too, and I got enough gigs to pay for the warm brown room where I slept, simply on purpose, with one big window and a mattress on the floor and a clock radio and stacks of books. I wrote sitting on the bed. I was proud of myself, paying for it and the apricot and tuna salads I ate every day, and jars of pickled tomatoes and drugstore allergy medication and that was it, because then I was still straightedge and I wasn’t sleeping with anyone, and nobody depended on me and I was lucky to be healthy.

That fall was different. Magazine jobs trickled away, mostly because the magazines were too but also, I didn’t write top ten lists or for places that had to let people I love go -- even when that wasn’t really anyone’s fault. The Economy and The Internet loomed over us all like those pop-joint sky puppets in used car lots. I still had enough gigs, but Dad taught me to plan for emergency, and so I started thinking about money every day, instead of every week when I deposited checks and budgeted. My magazine gigs became half a day job, and I of course I needed a whole one. I reasoned that until I found it, I’d spend a quarter of the time looking for permanent gigs and the other quarter, hustling.

Just before Thanksgiving, I got a two-week job piping pumpkin into pie shells from a tube. I got off at three o’clock every day, and lost my friendship with my roommate’s cat, because I always smelled like cinnamon and he didn’t like that. On Friday nights sometimes, in museums and hotel lobbies, I served cocktails to women with perfect hair who never made eye contact. I wrote washcloth copy. I hauled furniture. I liked these jobs because they made me sleep well at night, much better than when I stared at a notebook all day and clawed the back of my neck, which is what I do when I’m thinking.

Just after Thanksgiving I started dating a guy, and on Saturdays he liked smoking and eating peppermint patties until he was hungry for meat, so then we’d take the bus up north, where he’d order cholent and I’d eat more tuna fish. Afterwards we’d wander around comic shops and used bookstores. One Saturday I found a copy of George Schindler’s Balloon Sculpture: An Illustrated Beginners Manual, whose cover had banana balloons, a loop-necked swan, and a sweet wiggly pink dog. It was published the year I was born.

I bought it because it cost less than coffee, and Schindler’s instructions worked equally well as koans for trying to live as a writer:

Schindler never said, “What the hell is this, writer? Why does your hair smell like nutmeg, and why are you always sleepy?” He talked about process, and conviction, and if he said he was going to make a parrot on a swing, he made one and then he made another.

Today Schindler is in his eighties, he lives in Brooklyn and is Lifetime Dean of the Society of American Magicians. He is an illusionist consultant in Hollywood, an advocate for Houdini historians, wrote for Billboard’s comedy, magic, and vaudeville columns in the '50s and '60s, and in the '70s he voiced the Great Nabisco in Oreo commercials. In almost every interview, Schindler talks about one day when he was five and saw a man throw a string into the audience, then reel it back with a live goldfish on the end.

I bought the book because it was hopeful and funny, and it made my boyfriend laugh, but later I remembered clowns could make balloon animals too. In high school, I’d volunteered as a clown through a program at the local Ronald McDonald House. We’d dress up -- I had blue parachute pants, and a yellow polka-dot top and a pillow to tie around my butt -- be careful not to use bloody-looking makeup, and play with siblings while their brothers and sisters were in chemo. Of course some of those kids were manic, but most were incredibly, tragically patient. They looked like grandmothers. We played memory games, because those lasted longest and felt permanent.

I realized I could be a clown now too. I didn’t have the butt pillow anymore, but I had plenty of wigs, and a bottle of Jerome Russell glitter hairspray which I guessed would work on my face, and multiple pairs of striped kneesocks and a shirt printed with hearts. I bought balloons and started practicing Schindler’s animals, which are basically a Platonic ideal dog and from there, longer necks and bodies, ears sometimes, and either you draw whiskers with a Sharpie or you don’t. Balloon animals are equal part craft and sales. In the empty brown bedroom I practiced saying convincingly, fullheartedly, here is your puppy or your poodle or your whatever -- I’d make anything but a gun.

***

In Bad Bad, one of her poetry collections, Chelsea Minnis wrote a poem about clowns. “People don’t understand how you turn into a clown,” she says. “You turn into a clown because you feel more and more like putting on a clown suit.

“When you’re around people you sense a kindliness. It makes you so nervous you can’t stay calm. Which is why it feels perfectly normal to wear orange pants.” This poem’s clown suit is maybe the flip side of the red Baracuta rock critic Paul Nelson wore, after seeing Jimmy Dean dressed by Moss Mabry in Rebel Without A Cause. (Everything Is An Afterthought, Kevin Avery’s book about Nelson, has a costume too -- Nelson loved detective novels, especially ones by Ross Macdonald, so Avery used MacDonald’s same font.) The book I need to read but haven’t yet is Henrich Böll’s The Clown. Today, right here now at the desk, my favorite clowns in books are Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown, still really gross and totally politically relevant, and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, who must be a clown, right? It’s dangerous, calling someone a clown if he doesn’t want to be one, or hasn’t realized it yet.

 

***

When I was a clown, I put up ads on Craigslist and boards one neighborhood over, where more toddlers lived, and I started getting calls. My deal was I’d show up with balloons, facepaint, already dressed -- this was important, I was the clown at the door not the lady who turned into one -- and then I charged by the hour. I loved it. I felt like a superhero whose comic hadn’t come out yet.

I kept thinking about Schindler:

I loved clowning at parties because it was five minutes after five minutes, hanging with a kid who wanted to talk about something she loved. If she wanted a mouse, we’d talk about did you ever meet a mouse, and were you scared or was it soft? If he wanted outer space on his cheek, we’d pick a planet to paint and talk about what he liked best in the sky. Then I got to say, “You look great!” which was true, also like setting an example for desire achieved. I didn’t talk about myself, I was just the clown Mom happened to invite to the party, and when you’re five that’s like oh hey clown, you’re a clown!

I kept up my half-writing, half-clowning day job through the Spring, when I interviewed at an academic publisher and was offered a job, editing plus healthcare, neither of which I could turn down. I bought a blank notebook and wrote the bus schedule inside the front cover, got my teeth looked at for the first time in several years, gave my wigs and glitter to the kids next door -- keeping one little star pin to put on my desk -- and I kept writing. I am never not a writer. One of the last lines in Schindler’s book is in a chapter about balloon centerpieces, and it goes: “assemble all the fruits you have made.”

Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. An MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate of the 2013 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, Mairead is Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library and a project editor for featherproof books, Yeti magazine, and elsewhere. Thanks to Dmitry Samarov and Martha Bayne.