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The Rise of the New Clown Movement (Short Fiction)

Gael applied the smile to my face with his usual cynicism. While I appreciated his skills, it tired me to listen to his tirade about the mayor’s excesses, the homeless, and how we’d been robbed in the elections. I had heard these stories many times before, in our village, on my travels, in this deeply unsympathetic town. Gael did not appreciate the cycle of fate, the same actors committing the same terrible crimes, dressed only in different garb. At these times I might humor him by uttering a wisecrack, something like “Gael-o, if your mother was mayor, we would have tequila streaming from the show-er”, but he brushed away my entreaties. I tried to be positive while I drew on him the large pointed eyebrows he loved to wear. “Ay, Peron” he would say, “If you want to be taken seriously in this country, you must be profess-io-nal at all times.” (He liked to stress syllables to add gravitas to the word.) Since coming to the city, Gael and I had vowed to get the dirt of the country out from under our fingernails, and to learn to be like the City-Man. When we first got here, we studied his habits assiduously, the goose-step march with eyes focused intently on the distance, and most of all, the imperiousness, the ability to ignore or simply eradicate all knowledge of the misery of human existence. And so over time, Gael and I felt that we had become City-Men too, donning the mantle of professionalism, and we too learned to ignore the poor, the homeless, the wretched and the aged. But Gael and I were professionals in a city that no longer needed us. Still, we went to work daily and applied ourselves diligently and systematically, arriving home each night spent but satisfied. Perhaps in a post-9/11 world clowns were no longer a requisite part of a city’s fabric, a distinct part of its identity, but still we felt an obligation to keep our art alive. We were craftsmen as well as City-Men, and our work required us to focus our energies to the detriment of almost anything else.


Most mornings, Julia and Ana, our girlfriends, saw us off to the bus station with freshly steamed tamales. But today Ana was not feeling well, and Julia had to leave early for her banking job, so Gael and I saw our own way onto the No. 14 Mission bus. We had long mastered the art of stepping onto the bus in our oversized shoes, hefting our heavy bags filled with nonsensical items past the regular commuters. As we worked our way towards the back, brushing past Philipino mothers getting ready for their daily shopping, Chinese school-girls on the way to morning classes, and at least one crack-addict hissing threats and tirades, our oversized jackets inevitably snagged on someone’s shopping. We found our seats next to the gang-bangers polluting the bus with painful boom-box beats. We were used to the looks by now, the disdain, the carelessly lobbed insults, and we were could take it all in stride. Still, as I looked into the wide pear-shaped eyes of the little Chinese girl across from me, I couldn’t help thinking she saw in us the last of our group, a tribe doomed to extinction. Even ‘classics’ like wiggling my plastic ears while simultaneously honking the klaxons in my pockets did nothing to dissuade her melancholic gaze.  If we elicited a response at all it was one of pity or contempt. Gone were the days when we could sense excitement and anticipation painted on the faces of children (and sometimes adults too) as they saw us board. Instead now we got pity, resentment and contempt, members of a profession somehow so disgusting that some had said it should be outlawed.


Of course, we had all heard of the New Clown Movement. The movement, as its pretentious manifesto grandly proclaimed, was to expand the role of clowns into state functions, business, even politics, as well of course in the usual social activities; weddings, birthdays, bar-mitzvahs, even funerals.  Furthermore, they were going to recruit only the best and the brightest: Harvard MBAs, Caltech, Insead, places we had never heard of but that cast awe in the eyes of the Corporates who were our sponsors. These clowns, (though they rarely ever called themselves clowns, preferring instead ‘raconteur’, ‘commedia dell’arte’, ‘harlequin’ and others) would revolutionize the profession, they proclaimed. They would bring modern methods, business methods, to our art and drag it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. Politicians were especially enthusiastic about the New Clown Movement. The expression ‘The Clown Way’ had already replaced ‘The Third Way’ as a panacea for all the ills of modern society. The Pols touted modern clowning, marrying new-world technology with old-world artistry, as the ideal role-model for the type of society they wished to build. You couldn’t escape them on television, in newsprint, on the radio. Members of the Movement were on all the talk-shows, bobble-heads with artificial smiles plastered all over Sunday morning T.V., pontificating on world crises though their star-shaped eyes seemed to tell another story. We were old-school, we believed in clowning as craft, the way our fathers had taught us, and their fathers before them. Yes, we knew the money was excellent, and I would have to put up with Gael again on the bus home: “Ay Peron, perhaps we should see that Hen-tel-men, the one your Uncle recomm-en-ded.” But we both knew that was not for us, not in our marrow.  They were the newly minted arrivistes, and we both envied and despised them their youth and beauty. Often we would see them strutting through the financial district in three-piece suits, wide-lapelled double-breasted jackets flapping in the wind, hair perfectly coiffed though standing on-end, ready to assist in a corporate presentation here or pitch a new start-up to VCs there. (For some peculiar reason, they were especially popular with the financial big-wigs.) We wondered if the NCM (as they regally called it) really was the wave of the future. They certainly got people’s attention staring down from the billboards in their Galliano suits, Versace wigs and exquisite face-paint. But could they do what we did, day after day, week after week, without complaint or recrimination, Gael never taking a day off in thirty years of clowning? They were dilettantes at best, showing up at this Governor’s inauguration and that Mayor’s wedding but leaving when the going got hard. It could be infuriating watching them shepherded into their fancy limousines, Gucci briefcases, Palm Pilots and Klaxons spilling onto the street, pretty mini-skirted assistants scampering after them like so many ducklings. They lived a life we could only begin to imagine, glimpses of it afforded us when we visited downtown offices and saw pictures on the credenzas of a world we could never visit, lives made real by a snapshot of a child and his clown in front of a large beachfront property, or of a young couple and their resident clown sipping champagne together on an impossibly long yacht.


As Gael and I trudged up the four flights of stairs towards our offices (the elevator was not functioning again) we could feel the pulse of the city throbbing through the walls. People rushed eagerly to their offices, cars twisted figure-of-eights through the bus lanes, tubes of people squeezed out of Muni trains. We were prisoners to the pulse of the city, trapped in the rhythm of business, and as Gael and I prepared our morning coffee and began to make ourselves comfortable at our desks, we felt an air of trepidation envelop us. As I gazed down at the street below me, it was readily apparent who were the true clowns and who were just ‘wanna-bees.’ Even from five stories up we could tell an old-timer from the walk, the one-two staccato stutter-step and the body posture, shoulders hunched, head hanging low, eyes swaying from side to side like a miner’s lamp. It saddened us to see them reduced to this, dressed in ill-fitting attire, all semblance of joy extracted from their visage. Every now and then one of them might improvise a shoulder-wriggle or pratfall, blending it into their gait, a true amateur.  But no one laughed, no one even noticed, really. Real clowns ingratiated themselves into the sidewalks and throughways of the city, not like the NCMs who would never capture the élan of the masters. Yes, they were the majority now, pretenders to the throne, and we could only gaze incomprehensibly as they chirped into their cell ‘phones, rubber chickens dangling from their belts on designer clips. Their arrogance could be breathtaking, like the time Gael and I saw a gaggle of them piling out of a limousine, waiting until after they’d disembarked before putting on their shoes and wigs, all the while swigging Cristal champagne from the bottle! Gael and I would never display such poor taste, even in the village where we grew up there was such a thing as manners. 


We settled in, sorting through the papers on our desks left over from the week before, erasing the weekly scheduler pinned haphazardly to the wall by the door, checking our voice-mail for new messages. The paperwork, though sporadic, could be overwhelming. This was the downside of clown-work, the side the audience never got to see, pages after pages of reports, accounting, expenses (make up costs in particular had been rising steadily), detailed annotations of whether the audience laughed, at what, for how long. It was minutiae such as these that formed the crucible where real clowns were made, or as Gael loved to say “Ay, Peron, the clown is in the details, no?”  As we sat in our musty office, day after day, waiting for the call to come through, filing our reports diligently, mailing and faxing, we felt a certain pride in process, camaraderie with our fellow office-worker. We too were organizational men. We too had our place in society, an essential function that only we knew how to fill. Even the paperwork had its place. We knew how seriously the Clown Ministry took its work, and we felt obliged to provide them with the records they needed, the documentation, the essence of our activity. Of course we had about the heretics in the N.C.M. who wanted to do away with the paper-work, to even do away with the Ministry, privatize the whole thing! But we knew this would never work. We toiled in a business that demanded exacting standards, where government, good government, was essential in providing to society a service of quality and consistency. In an event-driven business like ours calls to action could come hourly, by the minute, a crisis anywhere in the city at any moment, an emergency requiring an immediate response, and we were prepared for any eventuality. Through the semi-transparent door to our office we could see Alex, the overweight temp the agency had sent us, mouthing hello as she shook back her hair, applied her make-up and refilled the coffee. We knew we could trust her to come bounding into our office the minute a request came in, breathlessly informing us of a situation that might occupy us for the remainder of the day. Some called what we did art, others anachronism, but in reality we thought of ourselves as first responders, akin to ambulance-men or firefighters, waging a ceaseless war against angst, sadness and ennui, and while the analogy might at first appear overwrought, we knew there were those in the city who relied on us, depended on us, and the burden of that responsibility fell squarely and solidly on our overstuffed trench-coated shoulders.


The morning ministrations seen to, Gael flapped down the corridor to chat-up the cute (or at least, not entirely ugly) secretaries in the neighboring offices. For some unfathomable reason, he felt obligated to share with them his coarse humor, crude come-ons, and belching propositions. For reasons even more opaque, they generally responded positively to his lustful bleatings and were often following him into the janitor’s closet after no more than a few minutes of conversation. Typically the two of them would emerge a short while later adjusting their clothes, Gael’s make-up smeared grotesquely on the poor girl’s face, the pair of them giggling hysterically. Still, these little interludes left me time to plan my projects in isolation. With Gael gone, I planned my activity for the day. I had decided many months ago that I would make a trip during my lunch hour out to the foggy west side of town, a trip that would take me back to the time that had set my life down this route. It was something I had been planning for months, and I wondered if I should tell Julia about it, but worried that she would get angry, her inability to understand my love for the old neighborhood fueling her rage. Julia was from the Mission, and she gave her loyalty fiercely and single-mindedly to those who lived there, but she was far less forgiving of others. I had met her long after I had moved out, and in many ways my past was behind me, but still I knew it bothered Julia when I mentioned my childhood experiences. She had never fully forgiven the neighborhood for setting me on this course. Still, as I boarded the Muni train for the Richmond district, heading for a place of Irish and Vietnamese, Czechs and Russians, I knew that people from the there no longer had any use for a clown, not then and certainly not now.


Leaving the Muni, I began to walk faster, up past Geary, onto Clement, the aroma of bass, cuttlefish and bitter-melon behind me.  Around me people turned to stare, and it was clear that my presence generated resentment, fear and perhaps a little jealousy. In this part of town laughter was a currency too valuable to waste.  People here were afraid to laugh, and who could blame them.  This was a neighborhood of single parents and four-to-a-room families filled with alcoholic aunts and incestuous uncles.  Clowns were not welcome, not like they were downtown or in the trendy neighborhoods of North Beach or the Marina.  In those places clowns were treated like royalty, fitting seamlessly into the micro-culture, no one would blink at a clown swaggering down Fillmore street after imbibing too much at the Balboa Café. In neighborhoods like those we heard stories of clowns being invited home to share a bottle of wine on no more than a whim. But here in the Richmond people protected their privacy fiercely. As I strode up Clement Street I heard the whispered epithets chasing after me. Even the children gazed at me with spite, eyes narrowing and limbs flexing threateningly. My breath was coming out in short rasps, air glistening in front of my mouth like a word-balloon in a comic strip. A thin bead of sweat formed across my brow, creating irregular streaks in my face-paint, and I was aware of moisture burrowing its way into my armpits. A homeless person lying by the side of the road hurled an insult that may have been a call to action. (I could not help noticing that his clothing and mine were identical.) I knew that to be a clown after nightfall in this area was to invite danger, the local newspapers were full of descriptions of clowns that had been dumped into garbage cans, stuffed into telephone boxes, and most humiliatingly of all, squeezed six-at-a-time into abandoned vehicles.  But this was the neighborhood where I had grown to be a man, and I felt impervious to anything they chose to throw at me. 


I entered the park through Lake Street, a narrow entrance leading to a larger enclosure, known only to the locals, where people walked their dogs and occasionally allowed their children to play. I was pleased to see my young charges waiting for me. They had evidently been there for some time as evinced by their boredom, but it was heartening to see the efforts they had made to prepare for today’s lesson. The oldest was no more than eleven, the youngest a day over six, but each had made a sincere effort to dress, apply make-up, and in a few cases even attempt the props and mannerisms. (I spied a twelve-inch long rubber sausage hanging ungainly from the coat pocket of one, who himself came to no more than my waist.) “Al-right Hen-tel-men, listen up!” There was new authority in my voice. “Today we are going to teach you how to be real clowns, real men!” A moral imperative drove me forward. This was the new generation, the ones who would take back the mantle, accomplishing what we could never have, a genuine clown meritocracy. As we worked through warm-ups, stretches and facial exercises, I felt energized. If I could create an army of clowns in this neighborhood I could take back the city, one street at a time, each town falling as surely and swiftly as the next. I watched my team go through basic training and as they did their rounds, furrows creased, purple tongues drooped from mouths in vivid concentration, I sensed the stirrings of a real movement. This was not a bourgeois, top-down assembly of clowning ‘talent’ put together the way the NCM had been formed. This was a street-rally, a spontaneous coming together, young learning from old, a new generation receiving the wit and wisdom of decades of hard-earned effort. This was how true revolutions occurred, one person at a time, and the younger the better. Didn’t Mao start with the teenagers? And Pol Pot? No, in neither case could the end justify the means, of course they were mass murderers who had convinced children to commit the most heinous of crimes, but surely one could admire the power of the movement, the focus, the energy, the discipline! We would move one atom at a time, a brick a day, and slowly but surely we would build a wall to entrap the arrivistes, a net woven of their own selfishness and insouciance, and these young warriors would lead the way. They were falling over each other now, tripping on their own coattails, and while it might take a little longer to teach them the necessary finesse, no one could doubt their energy. Yes they tired easily and seemed bored after just a few minutes. (One of them insisted on playing his video game despite my furious rejoinders of violence.) But in my heart I knew these young men (and one woman) would one day make fine clowns. This was how Geal and I had learned, far away in time and space, the auburn hills and brown-baked villages of our past receding into the late afternoon sunlight of our memories. We had the old man to teach us, and we had been no older than these children when we started. 


“Senor Peron, why do you walk like that?” It was Jesus, curious, diffident. “To make people smile, my boy.” I replied. 


“But, Senor Peron, why do you point your feet out like that?” Jesus again. “To make my walk look funny, my boy.” Again, I replied.


“But why do you dress like that?” “So that everyone will know that I am a clown, my boy, so they will know I am ready to humor them at any time.”


“But why do you wish to humor them?” I would be the first to admit it; the curiosity of children could be damnably confusing. I tried to step little Jesus through the process of clowning, that for us this was a calling, not a job, and during my discourse I noticed the other children gathering round to listen, though they feigned disinterest. Jesus looked up and his nose wrinkled, with what – admiration or contempt? It was so hard to tell with this generation, were they young enough to still be unsullied by the cynicism of modern life or had they been irredeemably jaundiced by rampant mercantilism? It was clear that I had to convince these little conquistadors of their calling. “Jesus, let me tell you something. Everyone, gather round, I want all of you to hear this. When I was little, just like you, I too wondered what I would become when I grew up. Just like you, I was full of confusion and doubt. But when I was taught the art of clowning by my elders, there was never any doubt after that. You must feel it here” (at this point I somewhat self-consciously placed my hand over my crotch.) “ Deep within you, entiende? If you are to become an artist like me, you can never have doubt, no matter how hard, how taxing you may find it.” They nodded their heads sagely, but it was unclear whether their agreement signaled agreement or simply a desire to get home in time for dinner. 


It had been a long day. Gael had been busy too, using his own particular methods for convincing young (and some not-so-young) women to join our movement, and when he and I finally met up back at the office we were both spent. Spent but satisfied. We were guerillas, cowboys, a clandestine military slowly pulling the city back from the abyss. We had spent the last five years watching the NCMs take our beloved town and turn it into a facsimile of a high-pressure financial citadel, and now it was our turn to make our rightful claim on it. The first encouraging signs were already present. There were rumors that some of the NCM offices were shutting down, that there was ‘over-capacity’ in the system, that a year from now half of them might be gone, and our spirits were bucked with each nascent whisper. Gael had tried explaining to me that there was some type of financial index that measured the success of the Movement, and that it had peaked about six months ago, but the details were fuzzy. Still, the picture that he had drawn, of a mountain peak sharp as the Tocllaraju, rising inexorably up one side only to fall precipitously down the other, was striking enough. If Gael was right, our own movement, our own guerilla war, might just be starting to have an effect. 


We were back on the No. 14 bus in the Mission at the end of another long, exhausting day. “Ay Peron,” Gael said, “I heard today that Raul and Gomes just quit their jobs. They were re-crui-ted by the movement.” He shrugged, and so did I. The girls on their way home from school were half-singing an extremely crude rhyming couplet. A large Vietnamese lady, her shopping bag filled with basil, pigs feet and a large bag of rice, appeared to drop it deliberately on my feet. The sun sank past the Mission center, from which emanated the pulsating sound of samba drums and bare feet. Perhaps Julia and Ana would make fresh tamales for us tomorrow, I mused.



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