Like the Tears of a Clown

by

06/22/2006

14th St. & Union Square, 10003

Neighborhood: Union Square

The other week I was waiting for the subway at Union Square. I was glancing around the station looking to see if the train was coming, when all of a sudden I caught the eye of a man in a clown outfit. He winked at me and started walking in my direction. I’m not usually the type to talk to strangers – especially those in red foam noses who initiate interactions with a wink – but this guy looked really familiar to me, which peaked my interest. It’s not like I know all that many working clowns in the city. I was sure I knew him from somewhere, so I decided to say hello.

He said hello back.

I said, “I think we’ve met before. Remind me of your name.”

He did a full bow and made a ta-da! movement with his hands and shouted, “I AM MR. CLOWN!!!”

It was a spectacular introduction and so I laughed and said, “Alright ‘Mr. Clown.’ Seriously though—what’s your name?” And again, he insisted it was Mr. Clown.

Under normal circumstances, a misplaced circus performer in the subway at midnight would be an endless source of amusement; a distraction; something to help take the edge off the twenty-plus minute wait for the train. But since I was sure I knew Mr. Clown in his pre-clown days, I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy the entertainment value of his lunacy. I was frustrated at my inability to place him.

My gut instinct was that I’d seen him naked at some point in the last decade. That I wasn’t 100% sure wasn’t so much a reflection on my own promiscuities as it was on the fact that a fake nose and blue wig take a real toll on a person’s recognizability.

I started rattling off a list of men’s names I thought might be his. For about fifteen minutes, it went something like this:

“Are you Brian Epstein? Did we go to Sunset Camp together, like, thirteen years ago?”

“I am Mr. Clown…”

“Oh my God! Phil? Phil Goldburg?”

“I am Mr. Clown!” At which point he told me he was going to go look for new props in the garbage.

This made me think he was homeless, and I realized I was more likely dealing with a run-of-the-mill crack-brain than I was a former flame. Still, in a final attempt to place him I said, “Okay, Mr. Clown. If I know you, than you must know me. What’s my name?” I figured with that question I’d stumped him and brought his little clown game to a screeching halt.

But no.

He said, “You’re Sara Barron, you’re 26-years-old and you’re from Chicago.” All of which was true. Then his train came and he got on it, leaving me alone to pull out every strand of my own hair in manic frustration.

I went home to the apartment I share with my roommate Shale, with a new bald spot and a story about an unidentifiable clown. Shale was lying on the couch watching a re-run of “Step by Step.” Apartment rule #4 is Do Not Speak To, or Be Generally Near the Television Set When Shale Watches ‘Step By Step,’ but on this occasion I figured: desperate times, desperate measures.

Shale shut me up before I could even get started. “Patrick Duffy wears cut-offs in this episode. Please go away,” but I told him I couldn’t go away – I couldn’t manage to function as a human being – until I figured out who this clown was who I thought I’d boned, who I’d seen make voluntary contact with garbage as a performance prop.

This peaked Shale’s interest. “Can you imagine if it turned out you’d had sex with a professional clown? How funny would that be?!” and so in an unprecedented level of sacrifice, he agreed to turn off the TV and help me find him. He hopped in front of his computer, began the process of anonymous stalking and investigation – The Google Search – and, after several minutes, gasped dramatically and said “Oy. Not good.”

“What?”

“Um….remember your John Smith fixation?”

John Smith was a young man I dated for two months and then obsessed over for nine years. He was the only person I’ve ever felt really compatible with. At the age of sixteen, I grabbed onto that small suggestion of compatibility and, through the thick and thin of all other relationships, had held onto it for almost a decade. So I said, “I don’t so much remember him, as I do cling to him as the only proof I’ve ever had of the fact that I’m not fundamentally unlovable or without a soulmate in a cold and lonely world. Why do you ask?”

When I said this – or rather, when I said an edited and slightly less pathetic version of this – Shale laughed. He laughed the way you do when you see the drunk girl barf on the guy who bought her shots all night. It’s one of those situations that’s unfortunate, yes, but so predictable that you cannot possibly be surprised; you can’t idealize someone for the better part of a decade, rest your faith in romance and soulmates precariously on his shoulders, and then be bowled over when he turns out to be, let’s just say for the sake of example, a lunatic clown.

John Smith and I had met nine years ago, when I was sixteen and living in New York City for the summer. Two weeks into my stay, I saw “Rent” on Broadway, and the only thing that excited me more than all that progressive talk on A.I.D.S, homosexuality, and interracial relationships was the cute merchandise vendor in the lobby. We struck up a conversation during intermission, he asked me out at the end of Act 2, and a week later, I was in love.

I may have been young, and our time together may have been brief, but I was as sure as I’d ever been of anything that John was my soulmate. (We both loved “Charles in Charge” and warm loaves of bread. We both shared a distaste for the words “moist”, “panties”, “sac”, and “slather”, the phrase “What up?” and the term “bangin’”. Sarah McLaughlin’s debut album, “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” moved us both to tears.)

My heart broke when we said goodbye at the end of the summer. I cried for two weeks straight and kept a journal chronicling my pain, which included entries like: “I miss John so much I can’t EVEN think about anything else. He was the only one who got me……..who really, really got me.”

Two years later, in September, I moved to New York City for good. I was so excited at the prospect of finally seeing John again that in June I called to tell him I was moving to the city. Much to my dismay, his phone number was out-dated, and no forwarding information was available. I debated an apartment walk-by, but ultimately decided that the I-haven’t-seen-you-in-two-years-unannounced-visit seemed a little on the psychopathic side, even for me. So I never went searching and I never found him.

But then Shale did. Last week.

Via Google, he found John, my John plus seven years and minus his mental stability. He was listed as a cast member in a show called “A Forest Made of Dreams” which playing off-off-OFF Broadway. He was wearing a rainbow wig in his headshot.

Shale said, “Under different circumstances, I would say something supportive like ‘You found him. Now go after him.’ But I feel like there’s something about the whole clown-fanatic, performer-who-never-drops-the-stage-persona thing says ‘potential rapist.’”

I knew that Shale was right, but the curiosity was killing me. I absolutely had to know why he went insane; I needed to find out what had led him down the path to Crazy Clown.

So despite his objections, I told Shale I was going to go see “A Forest Made of Dreams” and I was going to invite John/Mr. Clown out for a drink afterwards.

“If you’re going to go,” warned Shale, “then please bring mace. And No-Doze—if Mr. Clown doesn’t kill you, ‘A Forest Made of Dreams’ just might.”

When I showed up at the theatre, Mr. Clown was friendly enough, but politely declined my invitation for a drink. “Bars make me uncomfortable,” he said.

I surveyed his floppy shoes, faux-nose, and wide, rainbow-colored tie, and asked, “Why’s that?”

Mr. Clown ignored my sarcasm and launched into a lengthy explanation on the rules of “clown socialization” before suggesting that we go for a walk instead.

Over the course of the next hour, Mr. Clown explained to me that mid-way through his enrollment at Syracuse University he suffered a severe bout of manic-depression, and decided it would be best to drop out. Walking along the Westside Highway one afternoon, tripping on acid, it came to him like something out of a dream—what he really ought to do with himself was enroll in Clown College. He had always liked tricks and jokes; it made perfect sense.

It turned out to be the best decision he ever made. Once enrolled, his instructors taught him not only the basics of car compaction, juggling, and handstands, but also about love and the generosity of spirit. He learned that the emotional state of the clown is that of total joy and giving, and the epiphany lifted him out of his four-year long battle with manic-depression.

He became a clown. All the time. He insisted on being referred to exclusively as “Mr. Clown” (even by his own mother and five-year-old niece), he showered with the red nose on, and he juggled all manner of items, including bowling pins and various pieces of phallic produce. When not appearing in “A Forest Made of Dreams,” he could be found Monday through Friday from noon until 4PM performing his act in the back car of an F-train.

He suggested I try and make it by one afternoon. I told him I would, and then he asked if I’d like to get together again sometime, just the two of us. “Restaurants make me uncomfortable,” he started off.

“You don’t say.”

“But I was thinking maybe we could go on a picnic. I know this park in Queens, on the East River, that’s really pretty and usually empty if you go during the week.”

I hesitated. When anyone, let alone a fanatical clown, invites you to an empty park near a river, you steer clear. It’s just what you do. So I said, “Sure,” but I gave him the wrong phone number.

It wasn’t only that I didn’t want to die—even if he’d asked me to meet his somewhere safe and crowded, being with John/Mr. Clown was too painful. It was too painful to see his dimples obscured by painted-on rosy cheeks. It was too painful to see someone who used to appreciate the beauty of syndicated “Charles in Charge”, and the annoyingness of a “Cats” T-shirt, juggle and talk maniacally about the “generosity of his spirit”. It was too painful to face the truth: that the real-life version of my former ideal was only some crazy guy; a clown who would fall even further off the deep end if something ever happened to his red foam nose.

So with mace clutched firmly in one hand, I waved goodbye with the other to the notion of a perfect soulmate and took the train home alone.

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