Words are Stunt Doubles
I am always saying things I don't want to be saying.
I mean, that's not really quite it.
Let me try it another way: The things I am saying always seem to be standing in for the actual things I want to be saying. Like stunt-doubles.
Stunt doubles? Really? What is wrong with me?
Look, here's the thing: Even when I carefully think it out. (Especially when I carefully think it out.) Even when there is word efficiency and sentence economy. Even when I cut to the chase in 140 characters or less and just say it. As in: Here is the thing I want to be saying.
Even when I do that, it doesn't quite nail it.
And so, in a nutshell (left on the three-ring circus floor), this is why I like clowns.
A Clown Room, By Any Other Name
Grandpa had a clown room. It was exactly as it sounds: A room full of clowns. And we called it The Clown Room. The bookshelves were covered with clown statuettes: Ceramic, bronze, gold, papier-mâché. Clowns in various states of clownery. Bashful clown. Sad clown. Clown holding balloons. Clown dancing. Clown kissing. They weren't just on the shelves, either. They hung from the ceiling on trapeze swings. They sat on the floor. In the chair. There was a clown embroidered pillow. There were clown portraits, framed and mounted on the wall. Famous clowns. Archetypal clowns. Bozo. Weary Willie.
The room had other names, too. One of the names given to it was David's Room, which referred to me. It received this designation shortly after I was born. And the name and event were commemorated with a plastic yellow nameplate that had an antique car on it. The nameplate said: David's Room.
The Clown Room became David's Room not because I was a clown or had clown-like tendencies. It's just where they put my crib when I would stay at my grandparent's house as a baby. The Clown Room had fewer clowns in it then, in 1973. The clown population of that room grew in direct relation to my hormones. And so, as you can imagine, by the time I was a teenager, The Clown Room had become entirely overrun with clowns.
There were two clowns I especially liked as a toddler. One was a little toy: a skinny clown that hung from a high bar. You could press a button and the clown would flip over the bar like a gymnast. The other was just a big clown head, and it hung proudly (and loudly) on the front door of The Clown Room. When you pressed the nose, the nose lit up and a tune played. I desperately wish the tune had been "Send in the Clowns" but I'm pretty sure it wasn't.
The Clown Room had one other name during my lifetime, which was, simply, "Inside." The TV was in The Clown Room, and when my grandparents were done with dinner and had made some after-dinner coffee and had some fruit, grandpa would say, "Do you want to go 'Inside' and watch some boob-tubes?" My grandparents were some of the most interesting users of language I know. Referring to a room as "Inside" when in fact the entire house was "Inside" seemed revolutionary to me. It required "inside knowledge." It was like a secret code. And I liked being part of it.
Before "The Clown Room" was "David's Room" or "Inside," before it was even "The Clown Room," before there were hundreds and hundreds of clowns in there, before I slept there in a crib and made baby poop within its four walls—before all these things—the room belonged to my dad and his brother Benny. And so I guess then it would have been "The Boy's Bedroom." My dad in and his brother moved into the room when my grandparents bought the house, sometime in 1958, when my dad was eleven years old. He went through puberty in that room. He probably pined over girls in that room. He listened to hours of radio in that room.
Today the room is somebody else's room. The house is somebody else's house. The room might have a name, or it might not. It might be a room where somebody sleeps at night. Or it might be a room where one man, who lives with his wife and two dogs, keeps a collection cicadas. Or trains. Today, it doesn't really matter what we call The Clown Room. After all, a Clown Room, by any other name is just as full of happiness. Just as full of woe. Just as full of life and dying. Just as full of memories.
A Clown Room, by any other name, is still a Clown Room.
It's just some words we're using in place of the thing we really want to be saying.
Good Clowns are Scary Clowns
There's an article out in the August Smithsonian magazine called "The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary" by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie and, in it, psychologist Dr. Brenda Wiederhold says, "[The fear of clowns] starts normally in children about the age of two, when they get anxiety about being around strangers, too. At that age, children's minds are still developing, there's a little bit of a blend and they're not always able to separate fantasy from reality." According to the article, people who go on to be fearful of clowns in adulthood "are unsettled by the clown’s face-paint and the inability to read genuine emotion on a clown’s face, as well as the perception that clowns are able to engage in manic behavior, often without consequences."
I never developed a fear of clowns the way some children do. Or maybe it's more accurate to say: They pretty much scared the shit out of me, but I liked it. I don't necessarily attribute this to spending my baby years in Grandpa's Clown Room, but it couldn't have hurt, right?
I remember going to the circus once with Grandpa. He was very excited to introduce me to circus clowns. We watched them do the clown-car bit, where clowns just keep streaming out of an impossibly small car. The clowns then spread out among the crowd, and one actually came and engaged with us in our row. I remember how it was impossible to read that clowns face. How it seemed impenetrable. I could tell it belonged to a real person, but somehow the person didn't seem real. He seemed larger than life and threatening and ungovernable. It seemed entirely possible (and plausible) that he might do absolutely anything, like reach into his own throat and just yank out a screaming bunny or something.
I don't think I shit myself.
Clowns are unsettling because there is a real person under the make-up, a real person with real and complicated emotions and desires, and yet permanently painted on that person's face is either a smile or a frown or laughter or crying. The clown is, at the same time, himself and not himself. He is, on the one hand, a person directly engaging with us, speaking to us, possibly even touching us. And yet he is a person who is entirely removed from us and unknown. Not just unknown, but incapable of being known. There is scariness in that. It makes us feel vulnerable. Makes us distrust our own instincts. One impulse telling us to run, and another telling us it's okay: this is safe. Clowns make us fear what we do not know. About them. About ourselves.
But where there is danger, there is also remarkable beauty, if you care to look for it. All good art is dangerous art. And all good clowns are scary clowns. Not because they necessarily set out to be scary clowns. But because clowns are, almost out of necessity, scary.
In the Smithsonian article, McRobbie writes: "So the question is, when did the clown, supposedly a jolly figure of innocuous, kid-friendly entertainment, become so weighed down by fear and sadness? When did clowns become so dark?" And then she answers that with this hypothesis: "Maybe they always have been.”
A friend recently reminded me of the clown scene in Dumbo. I hadn't remembered it, but when I played it, the scene came rushing back to me. I remember feeling kind of scared and sad at this part as a kid. It's scary humor, isn't it? Not because the clowns necessarily look scary, but it's in how they behave: erratic, with a sort of willful thoughtlessness. A sort of intentional disregard for safety bordering on cruelty, which is at odds with the fact they are playing firemen. The part where they're getting out of their clown costumes at the end only emphasizes how we feel a distance from them. We feel like, even without the clown outfits, they're still clowns. They're still unknown.
I like when there are tensions between how a thing appears, and what the thing makes you feel or think. I like feeling unsettled by it. In a recent RadioLab episode called "Blood," Robert Krulwich remarks on how sometimes "The thing that scares you most is also so absurdly frightening that you laugh at the same time."
Clowns can make us laugh, even when we feel like screaming, in part because of the absurdity. The painted face in permanent smile or permanent frown, the make-up covering up the true mood and character of the person underneath. A sad face that shows no sadness, as the person wearing it sprays another clown with seltzer water. A smiling face that shows no smiles, as the person wearing it kicks another clown in the butt.
Clowns are almost never saying the thing they want to be saying. And that's partly how they make us feel the way they do.
It's Always Hot in Dallas in June
When Grandpa was struggling with his last breathes in the hospital, one of the things on his mind was pizza. Specifically, the making of pizza. The making of pizza for me and for other family members—my dad, my brother—people who were coming to visit him in the hospital that weekend.
He wanted to set up the room next to his with a table and, the way he figured it, it would be sort of like a party. He reminded my grandmother of the things she would need to buy at the store to make the pizzas. Which stores had the the best ingredients. Where she might be able to find the best price on mozzarella.
Talking about pizza was probably one of Grandpa's favorite things to talk about. That and fruit. He liked describing the way a thing tasted or the way it felt. He'd often furrow his brow and rub his fingers together when describing something that tasted truly remarkable, but which he couldn't quite label with a word. Food was visceral. Food was everything.
His enjoyment of food was only matched by his enjoyment of numbers. He could tell you that apples were $1.39 a pound at Giant and he knew whether or not that was a good price. He also probably knew that they were $1.19 at Kroger, cheaper sure, but not as good. He had a brain for all this stuff because he had been a produce man at Grand Union. He bought produce for a living. To him, food and prices were inseparable.
I wrote these words, exactly like this, on some paper on June 7th, 2002, the day Grandpa died:
Grandpa died today. I flew into Washington at noon to find out that he had taken a turn for the worse and the doctors did not think he would make it through the night. He didn't.
When I first got to the room and saw him lying in the bed, I was a little shocked. He was struggling for each breath he took—breathing in this eerie, mechanical way, like you would imagine a machine to breath, if a machine could breath. Of course it's perfectly unnatural for a machine to breath. That's how this was. You could see his lungs and rib cage expand with each breath he took—and you could see his frail heart beating rapidly from underneath the sheets.
He was sleeping when I arrived, but woke up for about 30 minutes, during which time I got to say some things to him, and he tried to say some things to me, though it was very hard for him to talk without his dentures in. I think he asked me if it was hot in Dallas, a typical question for him to ask. I held his hand—told him I loved him. His face was caved in without his dentures. He had a few days stubble on his chin and cheeks—something I'd never seen on grandpa before. He already resembled a skeleton lying there—you could make out his bones beneath the blankets. His legs were as thin and bony as my forearms.
It took every ounce of strength for him to speak.
But he did speak—and even spoke my name. I think it was meant to be that I would arrive here today—be able to share some last words with him. Hold him.
My Grandpa's brain was always a couple of steps ahead of every situation, working out logistical problems. He was always thinking, always plotting about what to do next. Next in life. Next in the day. And the main subject that kept his brain occupied was his family. I imagine one of the reasons he found death so hard to do was that he wanted to be there to do things for them—for us. To welcome us as we came to visit him in the hospital. To bake some pizza pies for us. To ask us how we were doing. To just sit and be with us and eat some fruit.
To ask how the weather was in Dallas.
Send in the Rodeo Clowns
I had a step-brother who used to ride bulls in the rodeo. He got stepped on by a bull once. Stomped right on his chest. It actually left an imprint. Rodeo clowns are part of what saved him. Rodeo clowns save riders like him all the time from being mauled by bulls. They distract the bull. Like a stunt double. They offer it something on which it can focus its rage.
After Grandpa woke up briefly and said my name and asked me how the weather was in Dallas, he didn't wake up again. He just fell back into that weird mechanical breathing until a few hours later, he stopped. And when he stopped it wasn't terrible. It just happened. And it was peaceful. There was a final exhale, and there was a wrinkle of his forehead as his lungs failed to draw another breath, and a screwing up of his lips, sort of like, well shit, this sucks. And then the wrinkle went away and the lips softened and then that was it.
Maybe one of the things Grandpa liked about clowns was their ability to find lightness in heavy situations. To wear one expression while feeling another. I really don't think he saw the scary in them. I think he may have seen the opposite: something more akin to bravery. A sort of selflessness in making people feel good,even in terrible situations. Of distraction: of painting over the terrible and the tragic with the everyday and the hope and the good. The way they confronted fear and sadness and despair with levity, and, in this way, transcended it all. Maybe, for this reason, they actually comforted him. Maybe he longed to be like that.
I've never felt more at peace with dying than when I watched my grandfather do it. For the first time, it didn't seem that bad to me. For the first time, it seemed good and natural. For the first time I felt comfortable with the idea that I would be doing that one day and when I did it, it would suck, yes, but then it would happen and life would keep doing the things life does and it would be exceptionally unremarkable and entirely okay.
I can't quite get the feeling back today. It's hard for me to remember it. To bring it to mind. But I know I felt it, and I know I felt a sort of peace, and not sadness. Which is the final thing I owe him thanks for, because I know it was him that made me feel it. This sort of sense that, look this whole thing sucks and it's a real goddamn bitch, and shit I'm sorry I've got to go, but you know what? It's all okay in the end.
And anyway: Is it hot in Dallas?
When Grandpa died, somebody, somewhere was playing "Send in the Clowns." Somebody was buying apples at Giant at a pretty good price. And on June 7th, 2002 according to the Farmer's Almanac, it was sunny with a high of 91 degrees at Love Field, which really isn't that hot, for Dallas.
"Send in the Clowns" was previously published online August 20, 2013.
Three new pieces are available from David Olimpio via Awst Press's Author Collection!
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