Balloon Man



Neighborhood: All Over

Balloon Man
Photo by Barbara L. Hanson

Connie was all for being a hooker, but Martin wasn’t. Connie wanted to be in the movie, Martin didn’t want her to be unless she played a nun, a Red Cross worker, or the head of the National Academy of Sciences. The trouble was, there were no parts for nuns, Red Cross workers, or heads of the National Academy of Sciences, only for a hooker. “What the hell kind of a movie is this?” Martin wanted to know.

It was a legitimate question, not least because Connie and Martin were due to be married within a few weeks. But the fairness of the question didn’t make it easier to answer, especially for somebody Martin had asked to be his best man. The movie contained satire, of course; that much I could say. What kind of black-and-white short running less than a half-hour didn’t have satire? And since the film was being financed by family loans, sound was out. It would be a silent satire, with traffic noises and slammed doors supplied by a friend with access to a sound effects library. Light would be of the natural kind — what you got from the sky during the day.

That didn’t really answer Martin’s question. He was stuck on the content of a satire that required his bride-to-be to play a prostitute. Since there was no script outside a few jottings in a notebook, it wasn’t possible to hand him something to read. With little alternative, he had to be told that the satire was based on foreign films and shorts that had recently caught my fancy. For instance, there was this Swede named Bergman who had a proclivity for austere characters dressed in black who represented Death; that was why one of our characters was going to be dressed up in a black overcoat and homburg and drive a milk truck down the street (with the connivance of the regular route driver who was willing to jeopardize his livelihood for a few minutes and for fewer bucks). Then there was this Frenchman named Godard who had one of his heroines wearing an International Herald-Tribune T-shirt while she peddled the paper in the streets of Paris. But no, no, not to worry. The budget didn’t allow us to whisk Connie off to France; our heroine, played by my wife, would sell her papers from the rooftops of the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Why from rooftops? Because that’s what made it satire!

Martin’s scowl might have been despair at understanding or it might have been self-criticism for not having seen more Swedish and French films. On the assumption that it was more the former than the latter, I told him about our hero — a Twenty-Something innocent who wandered through the streets of New York in an overcoat and bedroom slippers carrying a red balloon. How could anybody tell the balloon was red in a black-and-white movie? I reminded Martin that wasn’t the point, and he had to agree, at bottom still preferring to know why Connie — already his Connie according to his cultural and religious lights — had to play a hooker. I broke down the answers in reverse order of importance. First, there was the fact that the script (such as it might have been) called for Balloon Man to meander through the dingier areas of the West Side, and who could deny that in that neighborhood he was far likelier to encounter a hooker than a Good Humor man? Then there was Connie herself: A brisk brunette who carried herself without expecting nurses to guide her by the elbows. With the right raincoat and heels, with her lipstick applied with a trowel and her mascara channeling a raccoon………..well, better leave that answer unsaid. But that still left the most significant reason: Connie insisted on doing it! Or as she interrupted our conversation: “It’ll be fun, Martin. We’re not married yet, you know.”

Since this sounded like an allusion to more than calendar appointments in a church, Martin took a moment to review his doubts. There was definitely a calculation of losing the battle but winning the war on his tight face. He might have savored that reflection longer if Connie hadn’t added the reassurance that her hooker would acquit her part only in the street, not in a tenement lobby or fleabag hotel. Since these images apparently hadn’t occurred to him previously, Martin took another ponderous look at the imminent Mrs. Martin, wondering how they had occurred to her. It was from behind this expression that he said he was happy for her show biz career.

We all were because it was the last casting problem in the way of shooting. Over the next several days, Balloon Man slapped along the street in search of what he could not quite identify as adventure, unaware that Death was trying to run him down in the milk truck or that there were more convenient places than rooftops to buy the International Herald-Tribune. When it came to Connie, he stared back at her blankly when she batted her eyelashes, puckered her lips, and swung her hips in his direction, then continued on down the street, balloon wafting in the air. Standing behind the camera, Martin looked satisfied, doubly so when Connie also did and he could congratulate himself for having it on the record that he had encouraged her acting ambitions.

As nimble as Balloon Man was in other scenes about walking up to people and then getting away from them again before somebody had to talk, his performance reached its zenith in Times Square one night when he was supposedly overwhelmed by the surrounding neon and collapsed on the street. For the first and only time on the production, the prop master was called into play for the scene, first securing hundreds of dead subway car bulbs from the Transit Authority and then strewing them all over the Crossroads of the World for the intended laugh. As with other special effects on the short that might not have been short enough, however, the bigger laugh took place off-screen. This owed to the inspiration of the cameraman to shoot the scene of Balloon Man lying in the middle of all the dead bulbs from the third-floor window of a building across Seventh Avenue, leaving no sign whatsoever at ground level of a major shoot being in progress. By the scores, New Yorkers out for the night walked over and around Balloon Man and his bulbs but without a second glance back that something might be amiss. As the cameraman said, it was “a proud New York moment.”

The cutting of the picture coincided with looser editing between Balloon Man and Connie. As fellow performers, they realized they had more in common than walking down a West Side street. Scotch, for example — they both seemed to like that. And they also both seemed to have similar questions about rushing into church marriages — a topic my wife and I preferred not hearing from them with Martin sitting at the table with us and beginning to look suspicious. To his credit, though, Martin also liked scotch, and endeavored to keep up with everybody else around the festive table. Being methodical about all things, he also knew when he had liked scotch too much, so that he was able to clear all the glasses and ashtrays away from his place to make a neat little circle, remove his own glasses, and then plop his head in the space and go immediately to sleep. Balloon Man and Connie kept talking about the right age to consider marriage.

Editing on the picture went well. At some sessions it was possible to make as many as two jump cuts to cover up missing footage before jumping back to thoughts of Balloon Man and Connie. My wife argued it was none of our business, to which the logical reply was what wasn’t our business. Exactly, she said. People got butterflies before they went through with a wedding and wanted to hear their fluttering with a second person, just to get it all out there and put it to rest. Had she had those doubts? Who had been her Balloon Man? Never mind, that wasn’t important. Oh, really? Was it that guy from the bookstore who was always keen to talk to her about Norman Mailer while checking out if she was wearing a white bra or black bra? She didn’t want to talk about my visions of the naked and the dead. How far along had I gotten with the editing?

Just as she had been resolute about launching her film career, Connie put her doubts about getting married firmly to sleep. How could anyone have ever thought otherwise? So between bouts with the footage that seemed to have been directed by someone who didn’t want satire even to open, let alone close, on Saturday night, there were the traditional rituals of wedding rehearsals, family dinners, and worries about a marriage gift that wouldn’t look too much like it had come from a store on our budget, say Cheap Sam’s. What there wasn’t was a bachelor party, and that relieved everybody since too many of the people expected to show up would have been Balloon Man. Instead, there was a quiet evening in a restaurant with the couple-to-be where their conversation was all about moving to California after the wedding.

Moving from New York to California is a big step. It can be measured not only in miles, but in the number of drinks that have to be consumed while talking about it. My wife and I realized this the following morning — the morning of the wedding — when we woke up in our Manhattan apartment with two headaches to see that we had little more than an hour to share the aspirin bottle, shower, get dressed, and grab a cab for a church in Brooklyn. The aspirin and showering parts went fine. The dressing part got only a passable grade since I was still carrying my tie running down the stairs and she was still cursing the resistance of her hair to her comb. The cab part was an absolute debacle since the only two drivers who bothered to stop thought of Brooklyn as Hiroshima as the Enola Gay was approaching. Once they had sped off, there was little choice but the subway and its two transfers.

The subway’s noise was relaxing — a clatter of supersonic progress seeding thoughts that Balloon Man II should be with sound. Too bad the train made up for its speed through the tunnels with stops long enough to board a capacity crowd from Madison Square Garden and rival thoughts that Balloon Man I would never get off the editing table. But all things considered, and these included the transfers and ongoing views about the compatibility of combs and shampoos, it was almost reasonable to arrive at our elevated station destination a mere 15 minutes after the scheduled start of the ceremony. And even this wasn’t as bad as it might have been since, as I had buoyed myself going from one train to another, I had the wedding ring in my pocket. Nothing could begin before I had arrived anyway.

Since I wasn’t wearing heels and was the only best man, I was told to run ahead to the church. I shot down the El staircase without a clue that I was probably the inspiration for Gene Hackman’s chase after Marcel Bozzuffi in The French Connection. It wasn’t the only thing I didn’t have a clue about getting to the bottom of the staircase and tearing down the street to the church. A block away, I could hear the organist hitting the same chord on his way into Mendelssohn, then backing off again, as though Connie and her father kept faking him out at the top of the aisle. I couldn’t see any of that game being played in the right spirit.

The church’s side door was a mixed blessing. While it allowed me to avoid glares from Connie and her father in the back and to cross directly over to the altar, it trumpeted my arrival to the hundred or so people in the pews eager for action upfront. In the fourth or fifth pew back, Balloon Man seemed to think I was funny. Martin didn’t. Apparently long in place at the altar rail, he gave me the same kind of scowl he had when asking me about the movie. Happily, though, whatever he muttered was drowned out by the organist finally getting to his second chord and Connie starting down the aisle.

Everything proceeded the way it should have, for about a minute and a half. But just as Connie’s father was turning her hand over to Martin, I made the mistake of putting my own hand into my jacket pocket to have the ring ready. I definitely felt a handkerchief and my keys. I also definitely felt nothing else. Since jackets come with more than one pocket, I was able to squander the next second or two digging into them for the modest diamond that would have financed another short, at least as long as the labs were also agreeable to being paid on time. The priest chattered away amiably. Martin and Connie tried to look solemn about what they weren’t sure should have been altogether solemn. Her bridesmaid seemed on the verge of tears. Her I identified with. Certainly, there was nothing else in my pockets that could have stood in symbolically for the symbolic ring. The closest I came was my keychain, and it was twice the size of my middle finger. There was no way Connie could have worn it without jangling all the way back up the aisle.

As the priest moved on to sacramental things, I tried to reconstruct what had happened since slipping the ring into my pocket back at the apartment. I didn’t know what good it would do, but it seemed more practical than counting off every nano-second up to the exchange of vows. Having eliminated all other possibilities, I was sure the disaster had occurred while I had been ripping down the steps from the train. There had been a moment around the tenth or eleventh step when I had realized the flap on my pocket had been inside rather than outside and I had adjusted it — evidently ten or eleven steps too late.

The Requiem dragged on. Had there been weddings when couples hadn’t exchanged rings with their vows? Surely, there was some culture in the world that didn’t believe in such nonsense. Maybe one of those in the South Seas that Martin was always reading about and said he admired. Wouldn’t this be his opportunity to show how sincere he had been? And as for Connie, what kind of a hypocrite would she be if she accepted some representation of being bound to somebody like a harem slave girl? She should have stood up for her independence. She had done it with Balloon Man, so why couldn’t she do the same with her own life? That was the trouble with formal weddings: In the name of feeling respectable about going all the way, people were afraid of going all the way.

It was the priest who nodded for me to clean out my ears. For a few seconds there had been a cat-like hiss behind me. The guests warming up their opinion of a best man who had lost the wedding ring? Who needed to know sooner than later? But the priest insisted I check it out so he could get on with his benedictions. When I looked back, I was dismayed to see my wife kneeling at the altar rail by herself and looking like a religious fanatic who couldn’t ever get close enough to sacred rites. I didn’t know what that had to do with the balled up Kleenex in her hand or the way she kept staring down at it as though I had to blow my nose, and right away. Then I hoped I did know. When she shoved the balled up Kleenex into my hand, I knew why I had entrusted her with selling the International Herald-Tribune on the rooftops. “You dropped the damn thing on the stairs,” she whispered, trying to sound nonchalant about having recovered the loose ball that had won the NBA championship for the Knicks.

Since there were too many eyes on me, I palmed the ring behind blowing my nose. Balloon Man looked curious, but I knew he hadn’t caught on any more than anyone else. The priest, Martin, and Connie all looked at me for permission to resume their ceremony. I gave it to them.

For the sake of symmetry, I entered the reception at the hotel determined to have ten or eleven drinks. The atmosphere helped. Too many people, starting with Martin and Connie, looked too happy that, minus the delayed start, everything at the church had gone swimmingly. The only thing they seemed less entitled to than their satisfaction was their disapproval if they heard about the ring misadventure. Was it simply a coincidence that I had a similar problem cutting Balloon Man — that I had been left with too much of the essential material only in my head? I didn’t think so. Even when Death didn’t get you from a milk truck, it had irritating ways of running you over with a thousand small deaths.

There was another part of the wedding ritual I’d forgotten. About an hour into the eating and drinking and more drinking, the banquet manager intruded to ask everybody to quiet down for a second. According to this interloper, it was time for the best man to offer a toast to the married couple. He wasn’t in the minority, either. All the people who could only stare at your back in a church could stare you in the face when you were sitting on a dais.

What was there to say? Congratulations to Martin and Connie covered it, didn’t it? So okay, that would have been like just tossing a queen-sized sheet on a king-sized bed, so maybe a little more pulling here and tugging there. After all, they had been through a lot, more than even they knew. So just to make sure, “let’s wish them happiness again, and if they don’t want it, let’s all promise to jam it down their throats.”

It wasn’t quite like “We’ll always have Paris,” but it caused the same gargled emotions in a sea of throats. What greater proof that I was better off working without sound? Plus everybody could get right to more action by lifting their glasses, taking a drink, and joining me in shutting up.

Jam it down their throats?”, Martin asked quizzically after everybody had sat down again and got second opinions on their hearing.

“It’s a way of saying.”

“Whose way?”

Since he had been sitting next to me through the toast, I didn’t take his question literally. Instead, I took comfort from the sight of Connie trying not to burst out laughing.

A few weeks later, after Martin and Connie had long been settled in Los Angeles, we showed Balloon Man in a Lower East Side festival of shorts. Surprisingly, just about every major situation — the first appearance of Death in the milk truck, selling the Herald-Tribune on the rooftop, Balloon Man himself flattened out on the sidewalk in Times Square — received loud laughter from the audience. About the only interlude that didn’t was the one with the hooker. As great as Connie was, it should have been left on the editing room floor.

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