Money

Playing the Fool: My Life as a Freelance Clown

"Angry parents cut the line on behalf of their children. I wanted to tell them they were acting like bullies, but instead I handed them inflatable dogs."

by Mary Attaway
Aug 8 2015, 5:00am

Photo via Flickr user A Train

The Craigslist post shouted, "HAVE A GREAT ATTITUDE AND LOUD PERSONALITY, LOVE KIDS?" I broke an unwritten rule about anything posted in all caps and clicked. For a post clearly about clowning, it was pretty vague about job details, though the poster did mention twice that females over 30 need not apply. I laughed, then went back to looking for work.

But the more I scrolled through Craigslist's paltry career options in Brooklyn, the more I realized clowning was the perfect part-time job: weekends only, same day cash, probably lots of free cake. I responded to the all-caps ad. One interview and two hours of balloon training later, I was on the clown schedule.

I had assumed this was a small clowning operation, because the office where I had interviewed was tiny, but there were over two dozen clowns when I arrived for my first day of work. As they waited to be dispatched, they painted each other's faces and got chastised by the boss. She yelled, "Your big asses make the moms feel uncomfortable!" When she saw me, she told me everyone else was getting ready and I shouldn't just stand there. My "lead" (basically my clown mentor), Anna, asked me if this was my first time out. I nodded and followed her to the car for my inaugural party.

We parked in Manhattan. I changed in the back as our driver, Juan, sat in the front smoking. The ruffled gaucho clown shorts were too big and I couldn't feel my arms because the costume's glittery sleeves cut off my circulation.

We entered the lobby and the bellboys escorted us to the service elevator. The common room was empty except for the mother and birthday boy, too young to be frightened or interested. A dozen toddlers, followed closely by their parents, filtered in as we set up next to a Curious George cutout. Anna told me to make balloon animals as she plugged in our pink boombox and turned on Kid Bopz Volume 23.

I knew I could make a dog. Luckily the children were all of an impressionable age and asked for more pups. When all of the children had dogs and painted faces, Anna asked the crowd if they liked magic. They looked unconvinced but sat facing us. I had no idea how she was doing the tricks, and thought that her genuinely sweet energy and untraceable foreign accent made her a pretty good clown.

I heard children scream as I entered the next party. Are you a clown? Are you my friend? Will you make me a balloon?

I relaxed until Anna told me to go change into George. Excuse me? I said. As the kids played pin the tail on the donkey, we went to the bathroom, where Anna pulled out an adult-sized, pretty professional-looking Curious George costume. After I changed, she guided my furry hand towards the children.

"We have a special guest that's traveled from a far away land to come wish a special someone happy birthday," Anna told them as I waved. I started to dance. I saw children bouncing happily and could hear adult laughter and clinking champagne glasses. I loosened my knees and remembered a video I watched about the Christmas dougie but couldn't figure out the difference between that and the regular dougie, so I just dougied. The father gave us an $80 tip, 20 bucks more than the recommended amount, and some written feedback: Great show. Especially George. Will call again!

Juan got this gig because he's the brother of a clown. He uses all the money to pay for his studies in cosmetic chemistry. Anna said she had some problems with her visa and was hesitant to take chances on a new job. She took weekday shifts, too, and saved everything. Sometimes, she said, she walks away with the same amount of cash people make in a week. She warned me that most girls don't last long.

Photos courtesy of the author

I heard children scream as I entered the next party: Are you a clown? Are you my friend? Will you make me a balloon?

A man grilling offered me some meat, but it seemed wrong to eat party food, especially with that little girl watching my every move. I made her a balloon sword, instead. Soon all the children wanted swords. I made myself a blue one and yelled "en garde" in a funny accent and started chasing the children. I am really getting the hang of this, I thought, as children hit me in the face. A kid accidentally popped my sword, and I fell to my knees yelling nooooooooo! while clenching an imaginary wound. I announced my defeat and found Anna. When she saw me coming she turned to the crowd and asked them if they liked dancing. To my surprise, the crowd grew quiet and vied for better views of the platform porch, now a stage.

Improvising a magic show is one thing but synchronized dancing? Even the children could see fear in my eyes. An electronic drumbeat pierced the silence followed by, "This is something new, the Casper Slide part two, and this time we're going to get funky..."

The mother gave us no tip. The company pays clowns on a per party basis somewhere between 20 and 40 bucks. Without the tip, the job sucks.

Anna had a plastered on smile and clapped along with the "clap, clap, clap, clap your hands" of the song. I started marching in place and focused on one point like I use to do when I got nervous during college presentations.

"To the left." My left or the crowds? "Take it back now, y'all." Back to where I started or just backwards? "One hop this time." That I can do. Right foo leezt stomb. What was that? "Let foo leez stomb?" I had no idea what the fuck it was telling me to do, though I had deduced that all of this was just a series of commands that had a few seconds between instruction and execution. "Cha Cha real smooth." I was not sure what that meant, so I dougied again. And just kept going. There were some curve balls about getting "low to the flo'" and "Charlie Brown-ing," but for the most part I mastered it by the end of the song and reveled in the crowd's applause.

It was time for my second costume: a huge, yellow beer koozie with overalls. A child yelled, "Minion!" and I felt tugs from all directions. I leaned my real head up to get a better look out of the costume head's mouth, and my nose started to itch. I rubbed my head around, trying to brush against the foam padding but it was pointless. I smiled big inside my costume head every time someone said cheese. The mother gave us a $60 tip, exactly the recommended amount.

The author, when she isn't a clown

We took a break at a strip mall. A man leaned out of his car and yelled, quit clowning around, and Anna gave him a forced ha-ha look. We lost Juan, so we waited where people enter one set of automatic sliding doors and are briefly in a consumer limbo before reaching more doors. A vending machine full of small toys ate my money, and I was feeling cheated when a young kid, probably eleven, moved me aside. "You gotta know how to work it," he said as he slipped $.50 in, maneuvered the machine, and handed me my plastic prize. "So you guys are clowns?" I confirmed his suspicion, thinking he might like to see a trick. "I don't like clowns," he said, and walked away.

At my third party, I experimented with a butterfly balloon. It popped in the birthday girl's face and her eyes welled up. I informed her I was still in clown school and she giggled and gave me an understanding look.

Later in the evening, I got dressed up as Foofa from Yo Gabba Gabba. When the birthday girl saw, she swung her arms around my pink legs and told me she loved me.

The mother gave us no tip. That was when I learned about the saddest moment in a party clown's life. The company pays clowns on a per party basis somewhere between 20 and 40 bucks. An average day after travel and cleanup is around 12 hours. Without the tips, the job sucks.

READ: Clowns Are Going Extinct

We drove an hour into the Bronx for our final party. The contract said 15 to 20 kids. The gym was filled with about 100. Children clawed at my legs, begging for a balloon. A horrifying number of parents cut the line on behalf of their child. I wanted to tell them they were acting like bullies, but instead I wiped the sweat from my brow and handed them inflatable dogs. A second wave of children returned crying because they stepped on their balloon or rubbed it against sharp, pointy things that are ever so present in a Bronx community center basement. They demanded new balloons because it was not fair. I wanted to tell them life is not fair, but instead I promised them another once everyone got at least one. Unsatisfied, many returned with a parent wearing an unforgiving gaze of how I let a child down and that I better get them a new goddamn balloon that second. I knew I was not being fair, and that the most annoying kids or parents got balloons first just so I could get rid of them. I was letting the more patient ones wait, which was its own sort of a life lesson.

I looked at Anna, who motioned for me to wrap it up because I should have already been in the ninja turtle costume. I went to the bathroom to change and just as I finished zipping up the turtle body and was about to put on Raphael's head, a child came in. She took one look at me and the head in my hands and ran out like she had just walked in on her parents having sex. Our tip was 50 bucks, $10 under the recommended amount.

As we headed back to the office in Queens, a text appeared from an unknown number. It was a clown call. "Sunday, 9:00 AM, bring jeans." I am used to these types of texts from my work as an indie prop master. People write you late at night asking you to show up the next day at 7 AM, to get paid $150 for a 14-hour day. It's too much work and not enough money to live off of in New York City. That's why I turned to clowning in the first place.

I turned down the assignment, and thought I would never clown again, but soon after I found myself with thick-painted cheeks in an ill-fitting costume, once again. I clowned that whole spring, first to subsidize my time working on a play I loved, and then to pay my way on Adam Green's Aladdin, even after Adam started paying me the same rate as Macaulay Culkin.

I don't clown anymore. I don't accept that type of work. But I can still make some pretty mean balloon animals and I'm still great with other people's kids, who are always fascinated by a grownup who is willing to play a fool.

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