Turn That Frown Upside Downby Sabine Heinlein
It was the end of spring and I had decided to spend my Saturday afternoon with a clown. Clowns have always frightened me. As a child, wild horses couldn’t have dragged me into a circus. I felt that as a writer, though, I had to face my fears. I would go to clown therapy. I would allow myself to laugh and even to cry (if things became really unbearable). I would overcome my fear of the banal and emerge with a sense of tolerance, and even love, completely shedding my prejudice and anger. Or would I?
Like prehistoric creatures—think armadillos and cockroaches—clowns have survived shifting land masses, tsunamis, the ice age and even Postmodernism. They seem immune to revolutions and change. And, most amazingly, through the centuries those “bottom-feeders of entertainment” (as Diane Keaton called them) haven’t become any wiser. Don’t get me wrong: I am generally not opposed to someone trying to fit his whole extended family into a tiny car or accidentally dropping a giant fried egg onto sawdust and elephant poop. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind teaching a French poodle to sing a chanson. I am, however, opposed to a whole group of people making those very tasks and accidents their profession, repeating them on a daily basis, and passing them down from clown generation to clown generation like some sort of inheritable genetic disorder. More importantly, I wouldn’t feel entitled to expect hundreds of three- to five-year-olds watch me perform these laughable acts of despair and failure. While other adults spend their time flying airplanes, caring for penguins or writing, clowns make balloon animals and ride on goats.
One might argue that clowns have at least taken on the challenging responsibility of entertaining kids on cancer wards and of cheering up homeless alcoholics in city shelters. Well, I would argue that the clowns’ aura of pathos and pain largely stems from that desperate need for attention from those who can’t run from them. Here they come in their big, uncomfortable-looking shoes to let the sick children and drunks know from the very far end of the hallway that…hey, look, a clown! A balding redhead with no sense of fashion and far too much make-up scuffles down the hallway; the poor guy most likely has giant blisters on his feet and terribly bad breath after scarfing down that giant, filthy egg.
But wait: didn’t I just say that I wanted to practice tolerance and see what lies underneath the giant glasses and the thick layers of greasy make-up?
I had unsuccessfully contacted a number of clowns before I found the right one. Goofy Gary had “too much press-action going on lately,” Crazy Daisy never e-mailed me back, and the pictures of Polkadots scared the hell out of me. Besides, I really wasn’t ready for a female clown. A female clown, I told myself, would have to be one of my very last steps in clown therapy.
I called up Silly Billy, a.k.a. David Friedman, and convinced him to take me along with him for a day. David tells me he always wanted to be a clown, nothing but a clown. But a few years ago, David invented a second clown character, one that has adapted to the challenges of our times by being relatively scarier than Silly Billy. This made me curious. Would Dr. Blood, as he called his second clown character, help me overcome my clown prejudice? Would I walk away from this experience telling my friends, “Hey, clowns aren’t so bad after all. Not any more. This is the 21st century and there are very cool clowns out there!” Let’s see.
David is pushing a giant black suitcase on wheels down 12th Street in Greenwich Village. Hidden in his suitcase is a horror museum with artifacts that are supposed to amuse and/or scare little children. The suitcase has a briefcase attached on top and handles on five sides.
“All custom-made for easy transportation!” he informs me.
On one side of the suitcase David has put a Band-Aid sticker about 100 times the size of the original. As if its size were too subtle, the Band-Aid reads “Ouch!” We don’t quite know what to talk about, so I tell David that I had the same sticker on my apartment door. “Why? Was your apartment sick?” he asks. For clowns, a normal-sized Band-Aid doesn’t fulfill its purpose and one joke is never enough.
David is almost bald, but—in classic clown style—still grows the remaining hair on the sides of his head. He is slightly overweight and is wearing a blue jacket and gray baggy pants.
He is concerned about the length of his pants. “I should cut them. They are showing under the doctor gown. Yeah…” he mumbles to himself, his voice oppressed by the clattering sound of the suitcase on uneven asphalt. “That’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll cut them.” He then turns to me and explains gravely, “I’m only wearing these because I don’t mind them getting blood-stained.”
David groans as he hauls the suitcase down the subway stairs. He is used to doing it by himself so I don’t offer my help. I am short and skinny, he is big and bald.
As we get on the train, a woman approaches us. “Are you Silly Billy, the clown?” she asks. She could have left out “the clown,” I think. David’s face lights up. “Yeah! Not today though. Today I’m Dr. Blood.”
The woman recounts that Silly Billy had performed at her son’s third birthday party, and that her son, now nine, still talks about him. She has a little girl on her side who looks up at David. The child seems a bit wary of this man with the giant suitcase who had made her family laugh long before she even existed. The woman said she recognized Silly Billy because of the suitcase. At the performance six years ago, Silly Billy wore the timeless clown outfit: a red hat, a ridiculously oversized pair of glasses and patchwork pants with dots and stripes and more dots and stripes. It’s the sort of outfit that doesn’t spark laughter in anyone over five years old.
David hands the woman a couple of flyers and other items. I ask him what he gave her and he responds, “Oh, just business cards, a flyer and a couple of whoopee cushions.” When I inquire what a whoopee cushion is, David becomes a little shy. He doesn’t want to say “fart cushion,” but also doesn’t know how else to explain it to a lady without describing the sound it makes.
“You’ll see later,” he squirms.
I stare at the listless crowd of tourists. As to be expected, the tourists are overly loud and wear bright green and purple fanny packs. (I am convinced they would wear polka-dotted ones, too, if they could only find some.) The tourists crack up about something that a) I have heard several times before and b) that is utterly lame—justification enough to keep it to yourself. In this respect, clowns are a little bit like tourists. They are highly predictable and easily spotted; both groups walk the beaten path. That’s why it’s usually tourists who watch and adore street performers in New York City: It must feel like coming home.
David likes to mention his famous clients. After all, the press calls him New York’s #1 birthday clown. His website gives an extensive list of his clients sorted by categories: Television, Movies, Corporate, Magazine, International, Cultural Institutions, etc. Among his clients are Susan Sarandon, Madonna, Ricki Lake and Kathleen Turner, to name just a few.
“I have performed for the Sultan of Brunei and the King of Morocco,” he brags. “And it is very likely that Woody Allen’s children know me as well.” When I tell him that I haven’t seen Allen listed on his site, he is quick to dispel my doubts. “I imagine Allen’s children have attended some of the birthday parties where I performed.”
As we get off the train in the Bronx I start to doubt David’s high clown prestige. It is dark and windy and it starts drizzling; it seems like spring has suddenly turned into fall. The wind blows soda bottles, napkins and plastic bags around. People are rushing by without noticing us. David now slowly turns into Dr. Blood, a ghoul with a giant, black suitcase.
When I ask him whether he told his client that he is bringing a guest, he answers hesitantly. “Yes. I said I would bring my girlfriend.” My fear of clowns returns.
The housing project where our host resides consists of several tightly grouped buildings 30 stories high, their facades painted black by the dark. The composition of buildings creates a dark maze—the perfect environment for a ghoul.
As we enter the lobby the security guard guesses, “You’re here for the birthday party. 8T.” His response to us coming out of the darkness is somber, as if he had been able to foresee us appearing. We take the elevator up and as I’m making my way to 8T, David says, “Wait!” He opens his suitcase, puts on his scrubs, folds his pants so they don’t show and puts on his wig. Voilà! Dr. Blood. I’m eager to get back around people. Our conversations aren’t quite happening. There is nothing light and droll about being around a clown – things seem forced, bloodless and not funny at all.
We knock on the door of 8T. People scream. The door opens and Dr. Blood pushes his suitcase into the crowded one-bedroom apartment.
We enter a world of Pepsi-drinking children, teenagers with skillfully braided hair and obese mothers. The mothers have forced their big behinds into extremely tight jeans. The teenage boys, on the other hand, can hardly keep their baggy pants up. It occurs to me that mothers and sons could switch pants and finally find a pair that fits comfortably.
The women and children dine on fried chicken wings and french fries. There are no adult males.
Dr. Blood, unfazed by the scenario, starts setting up his show. He asks everyone to either move back or to help. He orders, “Children, sit down on the floor! The birthday table needs to be cleared for my props and baby carriages must be taken out of my way! The beads fallen out of the girls’ hair have to be removed from the floor. I don’t feel like slipping.” And the baby that’s crawling around unattended? “Please, hold on to the baby, I’m not watching her!” David tells the mother while nervously rushing up and down the small living room like a cranky caged animal. He puts up a sign that reads “Danger!” and decorates the table with a tablecloth imprinted with skulls.
The show consists of three parts. First, Dr. Blood tells the story of his “last trip to Africa.” His voice is surprisingly deadpan for someone trying to scare little children. Deadpan enough for the mother of the birthday girl to interrupt. She jumps up towards the makeshift stage and hands Dr. Blood a bundle of $20 bills.
“You are a good person.” Dr. Blood says, and then continues to tell of Africa.
“First I found the arm bone of a six-year-old girl.” He holds up a plastic bone and compares its length to the lower arm of a six-year-old in the audience. “Then I met an old African cannibal who had eaten every single person in his village. He made me drink a magic juice out of an antelope’s horn.”
Dr. Blood pauses and waits for an “Ohhh!” or an “Ahhh!” from the audience. But the children look more surprised than awed. And indeed, there is something surprisingly blunt and bizarre about a white man in a wig and surgical gown creating a frightening image of Africa in front of a black audience in a housing project in the Bronx.
“I was attacked by a snake,” he continues. “I wrestled and defeated it.”
There is a paper bag with something moving under the birthday table. The children speculated that the moving object might be a kitten. To my surprise, no one took offense at the idea of a clown keeping a kitten in a paper bag. One of the girls is now hiding behind the fridge; some scream as Dr. Blood reaches into the bag and throws a wiggling rubber snake into the audience.
“Shush!” He murmurs as the kids shriek. “It’s a little nervous.”
I’m a little nervous also. The show doesn’t quite seem to connect. This is the very first time that the children have actively responded.
For about 20 minutes, Dr. Blood is busy chopping off hands of unwilling black children and cutting apart teenagers in do-rags. One teen gives such a stunning performance—he screams and shudders as the fake saw penetrates his guts—that two children in the audience burst out in tears. A teenage girl runs to hide behind the fridge. Dr. Blood begs her to come out from behind the fridge. “Fridge Girl,” he demands, “come out now.”
As the last part of the show, Dr. Blood hands out surprise gift bags. He explains the gifts to the children with the accuracy of a doctor describing a medical procedure: the finger-chopper, the whoopee cushion, the Band-Aid with the fake nail and the blood capsules. To demonstrate the latter, he pops a couple of capsules and drools blood onto the audience.
“Eeeeee!” The kids scream, stumbling and falling on top of each other as they try to get out of his way. You can hear Fridge Girl giggling from her hiding spot.
Dr. Blood says goodbye like a super who has just finished repairing the plumbing. Out in the hallway he asks, “Did you like it? Did you laugh?” I don’t know what to say and stutter, “Yeah. Great. Funny.”
As I’m about to push the elevator button, Dr. Blood says, “Wait. I’ve got to change.”
He first takes off his wig, then his scrubs and then his T-shirt. And if that wasn’t enough, he starts wiping his bare, hairy chest with the sweaty shirt. He says, “I always sweat a lot during my shows.”
Dr. Blood finally manages to scare me.
David had promised me a car service ride all the way back into the city but suddenly refuses to pay the $40. He decides to at least hail a car that will bring us back to the subway station.
As we are driving through the night, David points to a passing black Lincoln. He squeals, “Look! A clown!” I look to see someone else riding through the Bronx on a cold Saturday night: Blond wig, white face, big bow-tie and red nose. And as I see the clown in his clown uniform I suddenly feel close and empathetic, to both him and David. For a moment I wish I could switch Lincolns to offer the blond clown a shoulder to lean on. And then switch right back to David. And back and forth between clowns and Lincolns, between destinations, humiliations and lame jokes.
At the station I treat David to a chocolate chip cookie and myself to a pack of red-dyed pistachios. David asks, “Do you mind?” as I pay for our treats and then thanks me three times. He asks me to help him back up the subway stairs. His giant suitcase is very heavy. “Your lips look beautiful, red and pink from those pistachios you ate,” he tells me on the cold, windy platform, gasping for air, still out of breath from the long haul up.
“Yeah,” I respond, “beautiful.” I hesitate for a moment, but then say it anyway, “Beautiful in a sick kind of way.” I don’t want a clown to make a pass at me.
I head back to Brooklyn where I have parked my friend’s car. As I get into the car my pants tear at the crotch, all the way from the very back to the very front. One big, loud “ratch!” and my brown corduroys split in two, the left and right legs held together only by my belt. My panties show in between. I burst out laughing. It is the laughter of relief and despair, the frenzied laughter of a mad person who has just barely escaped a clown in the Bronx. I can hardly catch my breath. My husband had warned me before I left, “I’ll be checking your ass for any sign of make-up.” So how am I going to explain the torn pants?
Was clown therapy successful? It’s hard to say. But, if nothing else, at least I got in touch with my inner clown. It’s a start.
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.