Clowns

Rose with the Mouse Brown Hair

Pink rose without frame

Pink rose without frame (Photo credit: Candie_N (Will organize photostream eventually))

Regular readers of this blog – I am working on my memoir again so I haven’t blogged in a while.  This is something that I am working on, and as with most of my memoir related stories I might delete this in a few days as it is a work in progress.  This hasn’t been edited by anyone, so I apologize for any typos or obvious mistakes. 🙂 

I never thought when I went to clown school that I would end up being asked to entertain residents in a nursing home. But then, what kind of jobs did I expect to get after clown school?  I can’t turn it down; a paid gig is a paid gig.

I used to hate nursing homes.  My mother would drag her four children to visit every dying relative in our family, no matter how distantly related.  For young children, nursing homes are incredibly frightening places full of, strange smells, scary sounds, and really wretched-looking people.  The idea of performing in one terrifies me.  But every performer loves a good audience, and there is not a more grateful audience than forgotten seniors with advanced dementia.  I take the job, which ends up being the longest job I have ever had in my life.  For over six years I would go to a nursing home in Westchester twice a month, then once a month.  In that time I met many residents, but the closest to my heart was a woman named Rose.

I knock on Rose’s open door and watch her perk up from one of her many naps.  She loudly exclaims in her scratchy high-pitched Bronx accent.

“Oh it’s the clown!  Come on in!”

Propped up in an enormous vinyl chair, the kind you only see in hospitals with its huge padded back and large tray for magazines, she sits beaming at my arrival.    She has a full head of snow-white hair chopped in a sloppy bob, and cats eyed glasses rimmed with rhinestones that were the height of fashion in the 1950’s.  Her upper spine is deeply bent forward so that it seems she has no neck.  Her entire body shakes as she speaks excitedly.

“Aren’t you going to sing me a song?”

To which I reply

“Father had a business, strictly second-hand everything from toothpicks to a baby grand…Second Hand Rose, I am wearing Second Hand clothes…”

Before I am halfway through the song she is clapping wildly with a huge grin across her face.  This is Rose’s usual way of editing my performance so she can tell me the stories she has told me dozens of times.

“Can’t complain, can’t complain, can’t complain…you know I am 88 years old, which is not that bad.  I am eight years above the national average.  I should be dead.  Everyone I know is dead.  My mother is dead, my father is dead and my sister is dead.  I could go any minute in fact…I could go right now.”

Then Rose performs a mini-fake death that is not even remotely convincing.

“Ha!  Tricked ya!  I am still alive!  Can’t complain, can’t complain, can’t complain”

Like many nursing home residents, Rose has a way of saying the most morbid things bluntly yet with excitement.  I guess when you are living at the last stop before the inevitable end; you can’t really kid yourself anymore.   She goes on.

“I used to work in one of the largest Vaudeville theaters in New York.  I was an usher and wore a very smart little outfit.  I was not pretty like my sister she had Honey Blonde hair.  Hair the actual color of honey! I had mouse brown hair, and mouse brown hair is only good on a mouse and even then it isn’t that grand.  But I had a cute figure!  I was a petite gal for the taller men.  Not that I ran around.  Anyway our managers watched us like a hawk.  We had a job to do.   Take a little bit of candy, flirt with a boy, chat with a friend and we were out of there.  I kept my uniform pressed and my head down.  I saw the greats I tell you!  The greats! And you could be a headliner with that voice and that face!  You could be a star in Vaudeville!“

My visits with Rose always go like this.  After several months of my bi-monthly visits, her usual stories change.  Instead of talking about her past she boldly tells me of big plans for her future.

“My sister and I are going to visit Jamaica…the islands…but because I am so sick…we aren’t sure I am going…you know how it goes….can’t complain…can’t complain…we have to catch a flight from Rye New York…I have to pack my things because I don’t want to upset my sister…the sea, the sand the dancing…maybe we will meet an important businessman who will want to marry one of us.  But if we do he will want to marry her…she is the pretty one…she has honey blonde hair…hair the actual color of honey!”

She abruptly ends her story with a pronounced and violent coughing fit.  Before I enter her room, one of the nurses let me know that Rose was battling pneumonia.  At this point she is 90 years old, and her body simply can’t fight off the infection.  I have been mentally preparing myself for this for months.  Every other resident that I have gotten close to, simply left for the hospital and I never returned.  Rose is the first that I have to watch fall apart before my eyes.

On my next visit to Port Chester when I go to Rose’s room the name placard on her door is empty, and her bed stripped bare.   George, a Peruvian orderly that I know well walks in behind me and confirms the bad news.

“She died in the hospital.  But the nurses said she had a calm death.  She didn’t have any family left, but you know how she was…everyone loved her.  So when it looked like she was close the nurses and staff gathered around her bed so she wouldn’t be alone.  She was a nice lady.”

Standing there with my accordion strapped to my chest I start to cry.  Tears roll down over my heavily powdered makeup and fell off my chin.  One of the first things they teach you in clown school is how to properly powder your makeup.  A properly made up face will not smudge through spit takes, a bucket of water, or tears shed on the news of the death of a friend.  I realize how much I loved that woman.  Her resilient optimism in the face of her own mortality, the loss of her family and her failing health gave me an unexpected light.   I wipe away my tears and pull myself together.  I have two hours to fill in the rest of my shift and the third floor is full of residents who want to see the singing clown.  I have a job to do, and Rose wouldn’t want me to let anyone down.

Divorce: My ex-husband the Clown

Joel Jeske

Joel Jeske (Photo credit: Prehensile Eye)

I remember telling my parents when I first met the man who is now my ex-husband.  I started with the positives– he was college educated, worked with the touring company of Chicago’s acclaimed Second City, studied with the Cambridge Footlights in England and had toured the world a few times over as a performer.   Then I finally let the cat out of the bag so to speak and said.

“He is a clown”

My parents were oddly accepting, I think they had grandchild in mind and half-clown grandchildren were better than no grandchildren.

As far as clowns go, my ex was quite accomplished.  He has been nominated for two Drama Desk awards, performed with every major circus in the country and has also performed extensively in Europe and Asia.   I always say

“He is kind of a big deal…if you are a clown”

But being married to a clown, even a semi-famous one is not a barrel of fun.  For starters there were the other clowns, many of which were extremely snobby.  The pecking order went something like this

  • Theater Clowns – Well trained, college degrees or higher, performances not always comical, sometimes only entertaining to other clowns.  Considered the most artistic.
  • Circus Clowns – Some join the circus straight out of high school, have skills such as juggling, stilts, acrobatics, etc, always funny, have a reputation for being rough around the edges
  • Birthday Party Clowns – Derided by Theater and Circus clowns, yet some birthday party clowns make more money than any other type of clown
  • Hobby Clowns – Amateurs who dream of one day becoming circus clowns, a few even follow circuses around like groupies.
  • Gospel Clowns – Clowns who view clowning as a “calling” rather than a job, use clowning to proselytize.  Many don’t believe in getting paid.
  • Rodeo Clowns – Work with animals rather than people:  in a category all their own.

To the rest of the population, a clown is a clown.  So a highly skilled theatrical clown like my ex is the same as a hobby clown named Sparkles–A man wearing a rainbow wig, scary make up, a dirty costume, and plastic shoes who twists balloon animals in the park for tips.

As a result of this common misconception about clowns, the clown world is full of rules and standards.  In order to be a “real” clown one had to study with Lecoq in France or Commedia dell’arte.  Clown college, which was run by Ringling Bros., was shut down in 1997, so any circus clown that came after that time was viewed as having lesser training.

So imagine marrying a highly regarded member of the red nose mafia.  They weren’t exactly the most welcoming group, and what made my situation worse was when my ex decided that I should become his partner-in-crime.  I thought that working as a clown might be better than as a mostly out-of-work actress, so I took the plunge and attended a brief clown school in Manhattan.  I liked the training, but found some of it to be completely inane.  In one class we were told to shout obscenities and throw tennis balls at each other, it was beyond useless.

My ex and I made great clown partners, but for years no matter how many gigs I booked, and no matter how many huge audiences I entertained, I never felt completely accepted.  I often felt treated like the Yoko Ono of clowning.  I was even accused of influencing my husband to not work with certain people or to only work with me.  It was all nonsense.  I never had any aspirations of running away with the circus or becoming a famous clown.  By joining my spouse in his passion,  I was trying to make my marriage stronger, as this art form was so important to him.  But I made a mistake many spouses make and put his dreams before my own.  By subjugating my own desires and needs for his, I was making our lives too interdependent.  His happiness became more important than my own and I would ultimately pay the price for this.   When the marriage fell apart, I not only lost my partner but my ability to earn an income.

Most of the clowns cut me off immediately.  I went from working all the time to nothing.   I tried to get traditional employment but in this competitive job market I had no luck.  I have joked that being a clown for nine years is the same as working in the sex industry, it is the stain that won’t wash off.   And thanks to the internet I can’t hide my past, so I stopped trying to go straight and went back to clowning.  I had to build up my own clients and relationships with new entertainment agents but I am slowly pulling myself up.

Now that it is all over, I am the one with the strange occupation trying to explain to people how I got myself into this line of work.  It is never easy to say to new people, especially potential dates

“I am a clown, my ex-husband got me into it”

A shocked expression usually flashes over their faces, as if I am about to start some type of joke.  Sadly I am not.

Life After Divorce: A Child gives me perspective

Originally published on July 18th, 2010  This blog post is from another older blog that I am currently shutting down.

So if you know me at all, heck if you have even encountered me for more than five minutes since June 21, 2009 you know a few things about me.

1. That I am going through a divorce, and thank you New York State for making the process drag on so long.

2. That my husband was gay, a closet case which I had to forcibly “out” after finding evidence.

3. That I have generally had a rough time of all of it.  I went on antidepressants and was suicidal at one point.

4. I have found it next to impossible to date anyone for any significant length of time, or even keep anyone’s interest for more than a couple of months.

5. My husband is a clown, and got me into doing clowning for a living and I am near starvation now because of it.

So knowing all of that, let me paint a picture of what happened to me today.  I was scheduled to work at a large outdoor music festival in Central Park for children and family audiences.  I was running late due to some train trouble and when I get there I am greeted by someone who has said the worst thing to me that anyone has said to me in regards to my divorce.  Her statement some months ago was that

In EVERY relationship when you really break it down, both sides are equally to blame in a break up

This was unsolicited advice on her part, and when I tried to argue with her she dug her foot further into her mouth.  In the case of my breakup, one side was definitely to blame far more than the other.  I was true to my husband and loyal to a fault, he was the one who deceived me for the entire nine years we were together.  If I did anything wrong in that relationship, it was not getting out sooner.  Since this woman spoke those words months ago, I haven’t been able to even look her in the eye.

So this individual is the first to meet me at an outdoor gig in extreme heat.  My contract said there would be two face painting stations yet, when I get to the gig there are three.  She tells me that I am not to set up at her station but to go to another area of the park, she does in such a clipped fashion that I immediately turn and walk away.  She tries to welcome me and ‘give me a hug”.  But I would rather not, I don’t consider her a friend, and I don’t really want to hug someone in a disingenuous manner.

I then go over to the area, and I am sent to the worst position to begin face painting in the group.  Well I think to myself, I am running late it is ultimately my fault.  I set up, and another face painter arrives with her brand new baby.  Lately other people’s babies, especially friends babies, almost elicit tears of sorrow in me and not of joy.  I am 37 years old, I am not dating anyone, nor can I seem to successfully date anyone or even get excited about the prospect of dating.   When men are attracted to me lately it just makes me nervous, not excited.  I figure they are just going to cause me further pain and grief, and as my therapist tells me all of the time.

“You have major trust issues”

No kidding.  So the likelihood of natural childbirth for me shrinks by the day, and any hope of having a child on my own is slim due to my increasingly dire financial state.

I have never felt overly welcomed by the community of clowns to begin with, generally speaking ” the clowns” tend to treat me like a Yoko Ono figure.  Since my husband is very successful in his craft, and I only began clowning once married to him, some clowns have been mildly to downright overtly nasty towards me.  As if I would marry someone to further my clowning career.  My head spins at the very notion of such insanity.   I have been performing since childhood as an actor, but some of “the clowns” this fact is completely disregarded.  And since the split I have felt more excluded.  Since Joel is so good at what he does people always want to hire him and now are reluctant to hire me because they are worried about drama on a job.   And try sitting down at a job interview for a “normal” job and explaining how you have been working for eight years as a clown!

And to further my sense of isolation the other three face painters share one large table and I am left by myself at one huge table.  Why we didn’t go two and two is still beyond me, but there it is.  Meanwhile I watch as my soon to be former husband runs around the event as emcee and general crowd-pleaser with huge accolades from everyone.  It was a rough gig.  I just wanted to go home.

Then she sat down in my chair, a striking girl probably around age six with medium brown skin, beautiful copper-colored hair neatly done in twists around her head, light almond-shaped hazel eyes and a sweet smile.  The woman I assumed was her mother explained she wanted a butterfly on her arm.  I thought nothing of it, since some kids are shy and it is common for parents to make requests.  While I was painting I heard the woman sing along with the band onstage, and said to the little girl.

“Your Mommy has such a lovely voice”

There was an awkward silence which I didn’t quite understand.  Then I said

“What do you think?  Do you like the butterfly?

And the woman explained that the little copper haired beauty only spoke French.

“Do you have her enrolled in a French school?”

My first thought was she might be Haitian but I thought I would go with the more obvious choice of an expensive private school since this was Central Park after all.  The woman then explained that the little girl was struggling to say something but couldn’t communicate.

“I am her cousin, we adopted her after she lost her family due to earthquakes in Haiti.”

I remarked how well she looked and the woman said

“She has been through so much, and she is doing so great all things considered”.

It was hard not to start crying right there.  Here I was depressed about my life falling apart but at least I hadn’t “lost my family”.  Sure the little girl will grow up with a much greater quality of life living here in New York than in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but at such a great cost.  I can’t even imagine how horrible it would be to lose both your parents, possibly siblings, extended family and the life you had known in an instant.  And then to come to a strange country where no one speaks your language and EVERYTHING is different.

After she left my whole attitude changed, I still wanted to get home but my problems didn’t seem so significant, amazing how the universe will do things like that for you.  If it be some type of God, karma or positive energy I have found over and over again that just when I need it, I seem to get a kick in the head waking myself up from self-pity.  Whatever our sorrows or trials are, there are always those who have it much worse off.  And I don’t remember who said the quote but I try to remember,

“No one is fortunate all of the time”.

We are all just doing our best to make it to the next day.   One of the things someone told me going through addiction recovery was to “treat everyone like they are dying”  because when you think about, we all are anyway.

 

Life of a Clown: Why are you an Elf?

Why are you an elf?

I wish that I could say that I was born to be a clown and that doing kids parties just came to me naturally, but that would be a lie, a huge, horrible, terrible lie.  Doing shows for children is like holding on by your fingers to the edge of a bridge over a raging river, while being pelted with used tires and taunted by a crowd below to just jump and just end it already.  It is that hard, especially when you just start out.  There really is no other performance situation that not only will you be heckled, but your audience might just get up and leave the room, never mind the handful that might physically assault you, burst into tears, or scream at pitch and volume that would cause wild dogs to scatter.  Performing for children is tough.

When I started as a clown, most of my gigs were with my then husband, the big shot circus clown.   Our jobs would usually consist of standing around in a over-the-top circus type of costume, wave, make simple balloon animals, smile, look fabulous–easy.  Joel might be juggling, or balancing a table on his face but I was usually an add-on and I was mainly hired to be pretty—a princess in clown form, to make the little girls happy.

But without really trying people started calling us asking us to do birthday parties, a gig is a gig, and being a clown is not the most lucrative of professions.   Birthday parties can’t be taught they are much like warfare, you can practice all you want but you will never truly be prepared for the experience until you are in the trenches.  My first gigs were awful.   I had no idea what I was doing.  It is so difficult to engage three and four-year olds for any length of time much less entertain them.   And they have no filter, if they don’t like something they tell you, and do so immediately.  They play with toys, they fight among themselves, they hit you with your own props, they can’t help it, they are children and it is what they do.

My worst party, the party I don’t even like talking about, the party that I wish would just go away but the memory of which still strikes fear into my heart each time I am asked to do a show.  Will this one be as bad as_that_ party?

I started with a bad referral, someone knew someone, that knew someone who knew someone and eventually this man got my number.  The client had no idea who I was or what I did.  The second warning sign, the client was a Dad.  95% of the parents that call me are moms.  I have since learned to distrust dads.  Most dads don’t ask enough questions, they assume too many things, they don’t think to consider all factors.   If dads planned most birthday parties they would go something like this. A large tarp would be thrown down on the floor, in the middle would be some pizza and the cake, and the kids would simply roll around on it.

This dad was hiring me for his son’s 1st birthday party.

Mistake #1.  I have since learned that 1st birthday parties are not for the children, they are for the adults.  I no longer do a show for a first birthday party.  The kids ages are too varied and it is next to impossible to please all of them.  And the guests at a 1st birthday party are usually all relatives.  The kids know each other and they will form a united front against any outsider they don’t like.  Add to that the long-held family grudges that exist between siblings, cousins, second cousins and the fights can also turn epic.   With family parties you have to be prepared for anything.

Mistake #2Long Island.   The commute from Brooklyn would be an hour into Manhattan and then over an hour into their section of Long Island, and finally a cab to the family home.  So a brutal 2 1/2 hours each way.

The home – an unassuming prefab 1960’s style medium-sized house.  From the outside it didn’t look like much yet, once inside I was blown away by its splendor.  White fur rugs on Italian marble floors, mirrored walls, all white sofas, a huge flat screen TV, expensive lighting, chandeliers, even statuary.    A small bust of Michelangelo’s David on the coffee table and a 5 foot reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the corner.  It was overflowing with opulence.  My first thought was who has white fur rugs?  Since they are walked on they going to get dirty right?  These people have a child, how long do they expect any of this stuff to stay white?

The birthday boy’s father was a huge man with a booming Long Island accent.  The mother was a petite gorgeous size zero woman with tight crisp pants and hair so shiny it seemed to glow.  Normally I arrive dressed for parties but because of my extremely long commute I arrived in street clothes.  They had me change in the second floor bedroom, also decorated in all white, but instead of getting dressed in my usual clown attire I put on an elf costume.

When I had booked the gig with the dad, which took all of about a minute and a half, he asked me to send him some photos of my different looks.   This was before I had my website so I just sent him a 1-sheet, which is a single piece of paper with every costume I owned represented on it.  About a week later he called back to let me know his wife fell in love with a photo of me dressed as a Christmas elf, pointed collar, tunic, striped tights and pointed hat.  The family was second generation Italian, and my elf reminded them of an Italian clown.  I tried to argue that the children would be confused as the party was in March.  The dad said

Kids won’t know the difference, they could care…my wife liked the elf costume, so you should wear the elf costume, no one is going to think you are an elf”

All right I thought, you are the customer, the customer is always right, I guess.  I have since learned that no, sometimes the customer is wrong, completely and utterly, horribly wrong. I was lead down to the basement.   In stark contrast to the living room it was dark, with real wood paneling, low ceilings, and little natural light due to the tiny basement sized windows near the top of the room.   It was also very small, not a full basement and not much larger than their living room.  And yet it had seating for the entire extended family probably around 40 adults crammed in on top of each other in every type of chair, sofa, folding chair, or stool imaginable.  The only exit was a small staircase leading to a door in the corner of the room.

For most parties, the adults either have the show in a separate area with just children, or if they stick around but they talk amongst themselves, they don’t expect to be entertained.  Which is fine as long as they aren’t too loud. I had the same expectation for this party, but as I looked around at the huge crowd assembled, I realized, these people weren’t going anywhere.

There was enough food and liquor to feed them all for at least a week.  Especially the booze, the table used as the makeshift bar was buckling under the weight of every type of liquor imaginable.  Not to mention the empty wine bottles which were neatly stacked up at the end of the generous buffet.  The adults were staying put, because where else would they go?  Take their plates of food up into the perfect museum like all white living room?  Only to have a plate of ziti or a glass of red wine ruin a perfectly beautiful yet horribly impractical white fur rug.  I was going to do this show for all of these adults, the mostly completely intoxicated adults.   Sweat was rolling down my back and pooling at the top of my elf knickers and I hadn’t even started the show.

The first words out of the kids mouth were

“Why are you an elf?”

My heart sank.   And really what could I say?  I am not an elf?  I am a green and red sort of Italian clown like person.  Like a fool I said

“Gabriel’s mommy wanted me to wear this”

Trying to justify, and as if they cared, all it did was further alienate myself from the client, my only hope for survival.    As with all types of performing–fear just makes things worse.  And at this point I was terrified, this was not going to be a good show.

I plunged ahead anyway, the first three minutes or so I had them charmed.  All of the adults were laughing and engaged and I thought to myself, this is going to work.   The kids were all ages, babies to teenagers.   The father had said maybe 12 children and it was more like 20 children, a common mistake, as no one ever counts the babies or the adolescents.  And then I made my first of many missteps, I referred to the birthday boy as Gabrielle instead of Gabriel.  Gabriel being a boy’s name and Gabrielle being a girl’s name.  I am from the Midwest, neither is common, and no matter how I tried I kept saying Gabrielle, Gabriel, Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabriel, Gabrielle, until the family said in mass “Gabriel”.  After that I referred to him simply as “sweetie” or “Mr. birthday boy!”

I held on, I could make this work, I could make this work.  Even though by five minutes into the show after fumbling for props, losing track of the order of tricks, and generally becoming consumed by fear–I had completely lost the parents.   The only thing that worked with the younger kids, including the birthday boy himself was music, so I started with more of the baby top 10.

“If you’re happy and you know it”,

It worked I had the little ones including Mr. Birthday boy, but I would immediately lose the older kids.  Switch to magic and the babies would run back to their parents.    I did a quick judgment call, I had more little kids than big, and the birthday boy was actually falling asleep, so I hedged my bets and went music, music, music.  By the time we were on the third song, I heard it.

“What are we babies now?”

And it wasn’t coming from a child, it was one of the adults.   The man’s voice was loud, and slurred, he was lit.   I kept going.

“I want a better show, don’t give us this baby crap”

I tried to block it out, I couldn’t believe that I was being heckled by a parent, a kid is one thing, but my show wasn’t for adults, it was for kids, how nasty does a person have to be to heckle a clown at a children’s party?

“Come on aren’t you going to do something better?”

And then he began to mock.

“If your an elf and you know it…..”

And he was starting to get laughs, not big ones, more nervous laughs than anything else, but this caused something in me to snap.

I froze, turned to the man my face in a stern grimace and I thought I am going to stop this now, and I couldn’t have handled it worse.

“Sir, I am sorry but I am trying to do this show for the kids, not for you, but for the kids, and I came all the way out to LONG ISLAND from Brooklyn in 2 1/2 hours!  Maybe I will stay in Brooklyn next time”

Meanwhile I wanted to say…

“Sir, I am sorry but your stupid fat drunken ass can shut your trap before I come over there and shove my ukulele down your throat”

But in any regards, I lost my cool, which just made everyone uncomfortable.  And I realized I sort of indirectly insulted Long Island and by doing so, insulted everyone in the room.   Most of the family members looked at their shoes during the whole exchange, they were used to him, every family has at least one out of control embarrassing “Drunken Unlce” like this, and they knew there was no point in fighting him.

I turned back to kids trying to keep it together and they reacted with a

“Lulu, LuLu, LuLu, Lulu”

That pretty much ended my show, I wasn’t doing that well to start, and there was no way I could recover.  I moved on to both balloons and face painting.   Only a mad woman does both balloons and face painting for a party that size, but I was inexperienced and I didn’t know better.  These people wanted me to leave but I had to get to every kid.   I was crouched on the floor with my face painting kit and kids surrounding me, even the teenagers wanted their faces painted.   The party went back into full swing including the bar, adults and kids alike stepped over me as I tried to finish things up.  The drunken uncle was still making nasty comments under his breath.

A full hour and a half after my 45 minute show later, drenched in sweat in part due to my velvet costume, I got paid the balance of $200.  Not bad but at this point it was blood money.  I changed out of my elf costume and then awkwardly waited for a cab to arrive.   The grandparents heaped me with praise but I wasn’t buying it, I just wanted to go home.  I missed the train I was planning to take, waited in the cold, damp station for nearly an hour, fell asleep only to be awkwardly awoken by the voice.

“Penn Station…..All Passengers out”

The worst part and the part that still haunts me a bit, when they look over their photo albums and they talk about Gabriel’s 1st birthday, or when they are planning his subsequent celebrations they talk about the terrible clown who wouldn’t leave, couldn’t get his name right, got in a fight with Uncle Tony, and for some unknown reason was dressed like an elf.