It was an afternoon of dejection following a long period of abject poverty that led to my decision to become a clown.
I was so broke that I had given up having a checking account months beforehand. It had been three months since I’d paid my rent and I had received a couple of eviction notices. While sitting at the Heartland Cafe nursing a small plate of tofu I noticed the following ad in the Chicago Reader:
Easy job! Man or woman with cheery disposition and friendly personality needed to dress as clown and hand out leaflets on Michigan Avenue advertising the grand opening of the fun new adult education place, the Education Zone! Wear own costume. MUST be prompt, professional, and cheerful.
I pondered my possible new clown career. I felt fairly certain that I could fake a cheerful persona but realised intuitively that my wardrobe lacked standard clown accessories. I had a rather silly looking pair of striped Guatemalan pants and a pair of red Converse high-tops but that summed up the absurdity of my wardrobe. Perhaps it would be okay if I wore a shirt that didn’t match my pants, maybe something in a plaid pattern. I wandered in a daze to the pay phone and removed a quarter from the bottom of my purse, the sum total of my funds.
The interview was mercifully brief. A man with a loud nasal New York accent informed me that he was the owner of the Education Zone, which was set to have its grand opening in Chicago in less than a month. He sounded both harried and arrogant, a combination that never failed to irritate me.
“Do you think you have what it takes to be a clown for the Education Zone?” he barked without a trace of irony.
“Sure” I said meekly. I really needed the job.
“Fine” he said. “Be here tomorrow at exactly ten AM. I’ll see you then.” He gave me the address and hung up.
Well things were looking up. I had some beans and rice in the cupboard, a carrot, half an onion, and a job as a clown. Hopefully the pay would be weekly. It wasn’t exactly the job I had visualised for myself when I was a hotshot high school student with a weekly column in the town newspaper and my eye on a journalism career, but it would help to keep me from being homeless and starving and that was an important start.
In the morning I checked all of my pockets and the bottom of my purse repeatedly but was unable to locate coins for the subway. This meant that I would have to walk the entire eight miles from my apartment in Rogers Park to the Gold Coast, where the Education Zone offices were located. I had made such walks before out of necessity ever since I had attempted to board the subway with a transfer I’d found on the street, and the fellow in the fare window said,
“Where’d you find this goddamn transfer? In the STREET? Don’t all the pretty white girls have money? Get the hell out of here.”
Chicago could be a very cold town. I started walking cursing my stupidity. It was already 8:45 there was no way I would be there on time. Rush Street was the epicentre of everything I loathed about yuppie culture and there was plenty to loathe about yuppie culture. Professional men sat in beer gardens, sun glinting on their Rolexes and their pints of expensive imported beer, staring at coiffed and manicured secretaries who wore mens power suits and carried briefcases. It was 1984, the year I had grown up believing would usher in an era of totalitarianism, the very height of the Reagan era. Greed was more than good, it was essential. My problem was simple—I had plenty of arrogance and a huge sense of entitlement, but I was not greedy enough.
I found the address, bolted up the stairs to the second floor. It was 10:15. I had managed to cover eight miles in an hour and a half, a record for me. I decided to take this as a positive sign. I was a clown now; it was important to stay positive. My new boss stood at the top of the stairs glaring down at me. A handsome but imposing man, his hair was perfectly feathered and he wore an expensive navy blue three piece suit.
“You’re late!” he screamed at me. “Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat—you must be ON TIME EVERY goddamn day. You understand?”
This was an inauspicious meeting there was no other way to interpret it, but I didn’t have time for regrets. “I’m sorry” I said simply. He gestured at me to enter and I wandered into a large room that was empty except for several piles of class catalogues loosely bound with plastic straps. Two young men sat on a small table staring into a mirror while trying somewhat ineptly to apply clown make-up. “There’s a mirror” my new boss said. “And your two new co-workers. Hurry up.” He left the room.
“Well!” I said pleasantly as soon as he was out of earshot. “He’s somewhat of an asshole, isn’t he?” My two new co-workers looked startled for a moment, looked around furtively and then laughed. I liked them immediately. “I’m Jeff” the older one said. “I’m really an actor but I’m broke or I wouldn’t have taken this job. I’m sure that’s true for all of us.” The three of us nodded simultaneously. The other man was very young no more than nineteen or twenty. “I’m William” he said softly. “But you can call me Chill Will.” Jeff stopped applying make-up to his face, looked into the mirror and squinted in a critical manner at his reflection. “Do you have any experience painting faces?” he asked me. “Because this looks like shit. I’ll scare the yuppies away wandering down Michigan Avenue with a face like this.” “I’m certain we’ll scare them, anyway” I replied. “But yeah believe it or not I’ve done face painting a couple of times on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Sit down. I can make you look like a clown.” Jeff obligingly settled himself into one of the plastic chairs.
Ten minutes later he emerged from the chair and peered into the mirror again. His face was decorated with KISS-style star-shaped eyes and psychedelic rainbow swirls. “Nice” he said. Chill Will was next. I decided to go for a scary motif, ringing his eyes with sinister black and white eagle wings with bolts of lightning emanating from them. Will was awed. “This is SO cool” he told me. “Man, I look bad-ass.” I wasn’t certain what our new boss would think of my artwork but mercifully he barely looked at us. “There’s a push cart in the closet” he said, dismissively.
“Load all of the catalogs you can onto the cart and take them down to Michigan Avenue. These people are busy professionals they don’t have a lot of time. Smile and make sure you put the catalog directly into their hands. Remember to tell them that you represent the Education Zone. That is very important. I will be checking up on you periodically, so be on your toes.”
He stopped for a moment, reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. “Here’s cab fare for your return” he said. “You are to work until at least five o’clock and be back here with the cart by six. Do you understand?” We nodded, and he turned away, retreating to his private office at the back of the room. The door clicked shut and I could hear the dialling of a telephone.
We emerged onto Rush Street—three clowns, with a pile of catalogs advertising classes in sailing and investment banking. As we walked down the street we perused one of the catalogs trying to determine exactly what we were offering. “Look at this shit” Jeff said. “How to Flirt. ‘Do you have trouble meeting quality members of the opposite sex because you are just too shy to know what to say or do? You are not alone! In this six-week course you will learn guaranteed ice-breakers, how to keep a conversation going, avoid awkward silences and how to charm people from virtually the moment you walk into the room! Especially that dreamboat you’ve had your eye on!’” “That’s ridiculous” I said. “These yuppies are so uptight. Dreamboats are easy to charm. Just get drunk and throw yourself at them. Everybody knows that.”
Jeff glanced at me appreciatively.
I love this story. It so captures the time and place: Chicago in the early 1980s. Can’t wait for the next installment!
Next installment will be up this weekend! Thanks!